The Perfectionism Conundrum – A Guide to Overcoming Perfectionism and Its Ramifications
Take a look at this picture.
This is James Bond.
He is the typical archetype of the hero.
He is perfect.
He is smooth, strong, assertive, handsome, never makes mistakes, an idol. He is “the quintessential man,” so to speak.
Now look at this picture:
This is Charles Bukowski.
He is the typical archetype of the anti-hero.
He was rebellious, he was mediocre, he was ugly, he was a rascal. But he possessed an extraordinary skill. He was an exceptional writer (at least for some people, myself included).
Bukowski was born in an age when the idea of the American dream was at its zenith. Everyone wanted to have the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect wife, the perfect husband.
Some did achieve it. Some didn’t.
The ones who did, realized soon enough that the American dream was a fad. A story invented by marketers to sell a healthy version of capitalism that could maintain the idea of consumerism and keep the machine running. The moment they got what they so immensely desired, reality hit them hard and they understood that the American dream wasn’t as lucrative as it seemed.
The ones who didn’t, were just looking at the ones who did with jealousy, and with an astute lack of awareness of what was happening behind the scenes.
Bukowski belonged to the second category.
His parents were German immigrants and he was raised in a poor and abusive environment. Growing up, his chances of success and the potential pursuit of the American dream were microscopic. He found himself working menial jobs while trying to make ends meet until he eventually settled a job in a post office.
Writing was for him an escape and a way to relieve his mental pain. The pain transformed into depression and this depression bolstered his rage as he grew, and gave him much of his voice and material for his writings.
Bukowski didn’t receive any praise for his great ability to present reality in such a raw and poetic way until his early 50s. When his writings became known, though, he amassed a following so devoted and ecstatic with his work that even the most vigorous proponents of the American dream would envy.
Bukowski wasn’t by any means the perfect person. Even during his most successful days, he didn’t feel that his life was perfect.
Life was for him a perennial absurdity that included instances of perfection like women, booze, writing and public orations.
For his fans though, he was an idol. He represented ideas that deeply resonated with their soul and allowed them to picture reality through an unconventional and anti-heroic lense.
For them, this was a big deal.
For them, he was perfect.
The reason perfectionism is so pertinent across the span of our lives
Human nature can be summarized as the eternal effort to transcend the limits of our abilities in an attempt to escape everything wrong with the human condition.
Since the dawn of human consciousness and the realization of the fact that we are aware of our own existence, we have been trying to create stories that allow us to make this existence more meaningful.
The idea that there is no meaning and that we “just are” was quite unappetizing, so the people who were able to create the more beguiling and convincing stories were the ones whose stories dominated the world.
These stories usually included various inaccuracies and metaphysical explanations of obscure phenomena, but their theme was very similar:
There is a divine or heroic entity that created the world as we can experience it and this entity is regarded as the manifestation of the ideal human.
He is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. In simple words, he is perfect.
The moment we believe in stories about divine and heroic entities that represent the ideal version of us, and in a way what all of us ought to become, we fall prey to the influences associated with the path to reaching that state.
The convolutions of such a situation are innumerable.
Living a life while holding the conviction that whatever you do should aim for perfection is stressful and onerous, to say the least.
Especially if you don’t really know whether you will ever reach that perfect state. Especially if you never really know if your attempts will ever be appreciated.
Let’s just face it. We are all victims of the perfectionism conundrum.
When I decided to start this blog, I was deeply convinced that we should all strive to become the quintessential versions of ourselves. That the pursuit of the “Übermensch” and the idea of a growth-oriented paradigm should be the nucleus of one’s constitution.
Back then I couldn’t grasp the ramifications that such an endeavor would entail.
When you enter the self-development sphere, you do so in a very enthusiastic and oftentimes irresponsible fashion.
You get starstruck by the luscious titles and the superficial realities and you forget to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and properly evaluate what is good for you, what is interesting, what is actionable, what is snake oil and what is plain nonsense.
The virus of perfectionism digs its way into your core and instead of becoming the vessel that will propel you towards “divinity” it evolves into an ill-informed version of a religion.
If you read my early posts, you will identify that this kind of ideology deeply impacted my writing style. Today, after three years of learning and interacting with various entities both online and offline, I see myself as a more conscious agent of the self-development sphere.
The pursuit of growth is still the overarching theme of my reality and it will always be, for I see growth as the only pragmatic strategy against the inevitability of degeneration. However, since I started immersing myself in the teachings of various philosophers, I surrendered to the idea of intellectual humility. That is the character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well. It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others.
This idea really impacted my worldview and also affected my approach towards the idea of perfectionism.
I now see perfectionism, the way it is described by various self-development outlets, as superficiality.
They present a version of reality so distant and cheesy that essentially degrades the true essence of growth and eventually alienates the audience.
In my about page, you will read the following words:
“I started this blog back in 2014 in an attempt to discover ways to optimize every aspect of my life. I named it “The Quintessential Man” because it sounds both ironic and grandiose. Just like our life. The quintessential man doesn’t really exist. He is the ideal version of ourselves. His pursuit is arduous but lucrative. We might never reach this quintessential state of being, but we pursuit it anyways. We pursue it because there is nothing more worth pursuing than this. It is a pursuit that keeps us moving. Keeps us evolving. Keeps us growing. Keeps us alive. Enjoy the ride.“
This might sound narcissistic, but I seriously cannot think of a more accurate description of how the idea of growth should be articulated.
The purport of this passage is to clearly showcase my desire to explain the benefits of growth without overwhelming you with illusions of perfection. Because a person who gets coaxed into the craze of perfectionism will suffer the inevitable consequences associated with the lack of attaining it. Consequences like fear of missing out, self-blame, lack of motivation and detachment from reality to name but a few.
If anything, I feel that re-engineering the idea of perfectionism constitutes a thorny challenge that one has to construe with caution.
Nonetheless, I will attempt to elucidate some ideas that can act as a starting point for assuaging the pain associated with perfectionism and its byproducts.
1. Embracing the idea of Freudian sublimation
Freud, in his monumental work “Civilization and its Discontents” attempts to identify the most effective techniques for alleviating human suffering. One of them is sublimation, for which he states the following:
“Another technique for avoiding suffering makes use of the displacements of the libido that are permitted by our psychical apparatus and lend its functioning so much flexibility. Here the task is to displace the aims of the drives in such a way that they cannot be frustrated by the external world. Sublimation of the drives plays a part in this. We achieve most if we can sufficiently heighten the pleasure derived from mental and intellectual work. Fate can then do little to harm us.”
Freud’s narrative has always fascinated me. Despite the many obstructions his theories have faced, no one can really question the depth and thoroughness of his work. Civilization and its Discontents was one of his last works and in it, we can discover a holistic interpretation of his ideas.
Sublimation is a psychological term used to denote the process of deflecting sexual instincts into acts of higher social valuation. In his view, all of human motivation originates from libido. Libido creates sexual impulses and to a large extent the need for power. Most people are unable to satisfy these needs and they eventually become neurotic and even aggressive.
The principle of sublimation can influence the functioning of our mental apparatus in such a way that it can allow it to focus on higher pursuits in an attempt to stay psychologically balanced.
Such a shift of consciousness can have a tremendous impact on the way we view the world but also on the way we view ideas like perfectionism.
2. Using archetypes strategically
Although in the beginning of the article I stated that idols could create false equivalences of perfection, the strategic adoption of archetypes has always been essential to the development of the self because they act as anchors. This tweet by Jordan Peterson, for instance, really impressed me.
The effects of my "right-wing" philosophy on young men: pic.twitter.com/jh4auN2u8K
— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) April 11, 2017
I don’t necessarily need to agree with all of Dr. Petersons posits, especially with regards to the functionality of religion within the society, but there is a point to be made as far as the role of idols and archetypes is concerned.
By understanding the archetypal structures in your own psychology, and in our culture (which has mythology as its underpinning) you understand how to be autonomous. You must have some values and understand where these values come from. They don’t emerge organically within you. You grow up around your parents and peers and copy them and assert some independence based on people you admire who got their values from other people.
Where do those values come from and what exactly are they? That’s where archetypes come into play. Archetypes according to Carl Jung can aid the integration of the ego with the personal and collective self. They act like a mental compass that can point the person to the right direction especially during dark moments.
However, their role should be confined to this realm and shouldn’t overwhelm the individual with the stress of perfection.
Jordan Peterson might be an idol for me, but comparing myself to his “perfect persona” is inefficacious.
Use idols and archetypes strategically, but avoid the mistake of worshiping and obsession. At the end of the day, we are all humans and you never know what happens behind closed doors.
3. Oftentimes it is immersion that makes an activity interesting
I recently started practicing a martial art from Israel called Krav Maga. I feel that due to the continuous tension experienced within the society lately I need to be able to face conflict and if the circumstance requires it, to defend myself.
I haven’t practiced martial arts since a long time and my gym offered free Krav Maga lessons every Monday and Wednesday, so I thought I should give it a try.
Like every novel activity that requires a lot of patience and practice in the beginning, it overwhelmed me with nervousness and sometimes even boredom.
I deemed the theory and the repetition of basic moves quite monotonous and I found myself questioning the instructor and even my decision for joining the course.
All that basically because I knew that I wouldn’t be a perfect Krav Maga practitioner soon and that frustrated me deeply.
When I managed to see beyond my frustration and allow myself to surrender to the presence of the practice, that presence crystallized into the truth:
You don’t need to be perfect to enjoy an activity. You just need to be competent. And if you allow yourself some time for intensive immersion during the initial period, you will most certainly become competent and enjoy it more.
4. Doing it like Epictetus
Epictetus is one of the three main pillars of the Stoic movement along with Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
In his most famous work, “The Enchiridion,” he begins with the following passage:
“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”
I am not familiar with as to why he believes that body, property, reputation and office are beyond our power, but it has probably something to do with the status quo of the time. The essence, however, remains the same: Focusing on our own affairs and things that are within our power makes life easier.
Perfectionism is not within our control.
That is because the notion of what constitutes perfection is predicated upon a significant number of individual opinions.
As I stated earlier, Bukowski wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for his fans. Many considered him repulsive and a slob. Does this matter?
I have received so many different comments for my writings. Most of them are positive but some of them are negative. Does it matter?
If I am able to properly evaluate my strengths and monitor the progress I have made through all these years, why would I focus on ignorant opinions?
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
The Stoics understood that better than anyone and that is why their teachings strike a chord. Therefore the stoic philosophy will always be the best cure whenever one has to deal with the perfectionism conundrum.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb also illuminated his fondness towards the stoic teachings with the following quote:
“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
There is usually a thin line that separates reality from delusion.
This line is very similar to the one that separates perfection from imperfection.
The sheer ambiguity involved in the way we face certain terms is of utmost importance when trying to make sense of the world.
At the end of the day, what matters the most is self-honesty and the fact that we should respect our endeavors as much as we should respect ourselves.
The best way to identify the benefits of a life that is free of delusions and free of the ramifications of perfectionism is to gradually adopt habits and practices that will help you reevaluate the way you see yourself. “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero excuses” can help a lot.
What are your experiences dealing with the ramifications of perfectionism? Share in the comment section below.
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