By Sophie Scott for the ABC.
One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is to let go of your quest for perfection.
Most of us strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. But what I’ve realised through analysing the research on vulnerability is that we need to give up on the desire that everything will fall smoothly into place; that we can easily have the perfect body, career, home, family, friendship group, etc.
Why? Because being vulnerable means admitting you are imperfect and being okay with that. When you strive for perfection, often it can mean you’re not comfortable with negative emotions. When we don’t allow ourselves to experience painful emotions, we also lose our capacity for happiness.
Some years ago I was living in the US and I had a friend going through a difficult pregnancy. I wanted to help her out in some way. My plan was to make her a three-course gourmet meal using all the ingredients she really liked. I researched recipes, looked for the correct ingredients, and became so hung up on the idea it had to be the perfect meal, in the end I didn’t even end up taking her any food at all.
Now, when I think about that example, I realise how much better it would have been for me and for my friend if I had whipped up something quick and easy and taken it over. It was the gesture of friendship and support that really mattered in the end, not the perfection of the food.
Author and happiness researcher Tal Ben-Shahar says the pursuit of ‘perfect’ may actually be the number one obstacle to finding happiness.
He describes three important aspects of perfectionism: the rejection of failure (win at all costs or give up); the rejection of success (the failure to stop and appreciate how far you have come and what you have achieved); and the rejection of painful emotions, such as fear.
He outlines how perfectionists tend to use words like ‘should’, ‘ought to’ and ‘must’. I never really understood that choosing one word over another could really change how you feel and how much pressure you put on yourself.
For me, that word is ‘should’. Think about how you have felt, or would feel, if someone you admired or looked up to said to you: “You should be thinner/married by now/more successful etc…” I have found these statements evoke the fear of not being okay and not being good enough.