July 24, 2016

Perfection is a Distraction.

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One of the worst distractions presented to us on a daily basis is the notion that anything less than perfection equates to failure.

We know this to be false on a deeper level, and we may pay lip service to the “path” over the “goal,” but when we don’t meet our own high standards, how common is it for that feeling of unworthiness and failure to creep upon as and cast a dark shadow over everything we’ve done or plan to do?

Perfectionism keeps us from that loving relationship, it stops us from going back to the yoga mat, it puts that writing project on hold, and it discourages us from sitting down and meditating each day. Perfectionism is that voice telling us to give up. Perfectionism is that hopelessness we feel when things don’t go according to plan.

The ideal of perfection is lofty, and also unreachable.

Being so focused on perfection fast tracks us to disappointment and feeling that no matter what we do, we’re not good enough. Perfection is an illusion when we believe that it’s something we have to get or achieve. It takes us out of the present moment, the place that is real and tangible and here. If we leave the present moment by thinking that some other place, some other time is preferable to what is going on in the moment, then our minds are no longer focused on what’s right in front of us.

Look outside. Look at the plants, the animals, the mountains, the forests, the sky. Perfect lines and our artificial ideas of what symmetry should be do not exist in nature. Even deeper than aesthetics, look at how our planet operates. Nature can be sweet and nature can be vicious. Nature is not fair. Nature just is, operating the way it has been since life began. But in all its imperfections, nature is perfect.

Now look at yourself.

Maybe there’s a line on your face that wasn’t there yesterday. Maybe your muscles could be more toned. Maybe your teeth aren’t as straight as you’d like. But that is you! You’re made up of all of these elements and more. You are unique, and like no one else who ever was or will be.

Perhaps you feel like a failure because you’ve clung to trying to be perfect for so long that no other option seems viable. Not only do you see yourself as imperfect, you see yourself as unworthy of perfection. You’ve made mistakes, you’ve given up on things you’ve wanted to do, you’ve maintained relationships with people who’ve hurt you, you live with regretting things both said and unsaid, and you find yourself identifying with your mistakes. But those are the things that are not you! You are not that bad habit or that regret. These things are part of you and part of your history, sure, but they are not you. Your experiences, your perceived failures and successes, they have all led up to here, to this moment, this place, which is perfect in its imperfections.

Growing up, there was always a piano recital in my near future. I’d practice and practice for that recital, stressing myself out over the shame of public embarrassment if I were to make some egregious error. While practicing, I’d confront difficult passages, but I’d keep working and working until I’d ironed out all of my mistakes. Then recital night would come, I’d go up on stage, play my piece, take a bow, then sit down. It’d all be over quickly, and I’d feel overcome by a great sense of relief.

But you know what? I made mistakes. Maybe a passage didn’t go as smoothly as I wanted, maybe my fingers hit the wrong notes, or maybe my timing wasn’t perfect all the way through.

None of this mattered in the end, however. I made that piece mine. I owned it, mistakes and all. Of course not long thereafter I’d be stressing out over another recital, and the cycle would repeat. Growing up it seemed like there was a never-ending cycle of piano recitals in which I’d have to perform, meaning a never-ending cycle of distress I’d have to endure.

Yet time went on, and a funny thing occurred: I started to appreciate the journey of practice. I was always worried I wouldn’t be perfect on stage, and no matter how hard I practiced I still made some mistakes, as imperceptible to the audience as they were. I would never be the perfect pianist I wanted to be, but I was proud of my performances, and my parents and teacher were proud of me. No matter what happened, I was always okay in the end, and a little bit better and wiser.

Practice became not about being the best pianist in the world, but the best possible pianist that I could be in that moment.

Each time I practiced I got a little bit better, but I had rid myself of being attached to the idea of perfection. Each tiny little success built on itself, and I learned from each mistake. I became unconcerned with the outcome and just learned to appreciate the ride, and unlike many of my peers at the time—who were force-fed pianistic perfection—I grew up to always enjoy playing the piano and other instruments, and have yet to stop practicing years later.

Instead of perfection, we should focus on approaching our lives and the things we encounter as stepping stones along our journey’s path. We won’t ever be perfect in some future sense of the word, but we can be perfect in the moment we’re in, just by enjoying and loving ourselves.


Author: Joseph Sanchez

Image: Helen Alfvegren/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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