“What you resist, persists.” ~C.G. Jung
There it is: Perfection, Eureka!—the holy grail of achievement, like an elusive mirage in the middle of a desert or that pesky little pot of gold we are always hunting for at the end of the rainbow, purring with all of its possibilities, protection, and promise.
Yet, despite its charm and the value we tend to assign to the trait, as well as on those who possess it, perfectionism ultimately leads to the same destination. In striving for perfection, we may soon find ourselves disappointed, dissatisfied, and even sometimes, knee-deep in suffering and denial, like I did.
What does it really mean to be perfect? To do things perfectly? To be a perfectionist?
For me, perfectionism is best described as a constant striving—the sense that you or the circumstances in your life are unacceptable as they are. This also goes far beyond a healthy desire for excellence or improvement.
The chance to do more and to be more consumed me. And ultimately, the chance to become the living, breathing, endlessly disciplined and carefully retouched image of my actual self was just too tantalizing.
It seemed to offer me the ability to control the circumstances as well as the people around me, shaping them all and living life according to my own terms and conditions.
We are often taught that along with perfectionism, and its corresponding high level of accomplishment, comes an automatic sense of admiration, security, certainty, and predictability—all acting as some sort of insurance or safeguard against the painful, frustrating, and seemingly unavoidable irritations and nuances of our day-to-day lives.
What I realize now is this: I longed to be admired by all, yet truly seen and known by none. For me, perfectionism became a way to mask all those less-than perfect, too different or undesirable aspects of my self.
Growing up, I felt fundamentally different from my peers, which at the time, translated to feeling inferior and never quite fitting or blending in. I had decided I stood out like a sore thumb.
Being biracial and heavily influenced by my Peruvian culture growing up, I remember longing to fit in or to be more like those around me—to watch American television shows, to listen to American music and radio in the car, and to eat American food every night for dinner.
At school, I desperately hoped to fit in and be accepted, but despite my best efforts, oftentimes, I felt like I was on the outside looking in.
I did not understand then that what made me different actually gave me insight, depth, openness, compassion, and the ability to empathize with others.
I longed to push my differences deep down, far enough that I could just about convince myself that they had actually vanished, and that I was victorious.
Later on, my obsession with perfectionism and its illusion of control took up most of my time, consumed my mind, yet left me riddled with feelings of anxiety, depression, unworthiness, shame, guilt, and several increasingly unbalanced and unhealthy relationships in its wake.
It was never enough. The harder I tried, the more I felt sure I was failing, and the pain inside grew stronger. I came to better hide my true self, feeling ashamed of the parts that did not measure up.
I had already decided I was unworthy, because I was simply too bossy, too sensitive, too shy, too fearful, too quiet, too reactive, too emotional, too unfocused, too messy, too raw, and entirely too quirky. I was too imperfect as I was.
In being so judgmental of myself, it is no wonder that this critical perspective began to spread and apply to everything and everyone around me.
Once I am perfect, or closer to perfect, we find ourselves thinking, I will finally be that much closer to being able to truly and wholly accept and love myself. At last, I thought, I can be safe, decidedly removed from all judgment and ridicule—no longer vulnerable or ashamed.
I was no longer forced to see and accept things as they were—the good and the bad, all braided together into one and, always already beyond the span of my control.
The incessant worrying, people pleasing, and the constant search for external validation through the approval of others all culminated in the implosion of a four-year romantic relationship that I had been doing just about everything in my power and beyond to maintain—even at the expense of my overall well being.
This was my misguided attempt to ensure everything appeared seamlessly and seemingly picture perfect for everyone around me.
Nights spent crying and mornings where I could not bring myself to get out of bed, I knew I was drained and broken down. I could not keep pushing forward and denying myself, and I could no longer disguise or deny the chaos lurking only inches below the perfectly polished façade.
I had been denying my true self, my needs, my wants, and my feelings to the point where they became unintelligible to me. In fact, I am still working to decode, understand, and listen to them.
But I do know this much: What I was craving more than anything was to be seen and accepted for who I was—without all that extra effort and perfectionism piled on top.
I wanted to belong, to be desired, and to be loved for who I am already. And I was looking for that stamp of approval outside of myself and from others.
When I looked around me, all I could see were my unrealistically high expectations mirrored back at me. The seeds of expectation and subsequent suffering had now firmly taken root.
With reality on one side and my demands and expectations on the other, I found myself bridging the chasm, clinging to both sides, exhausted, and using nearly every last bit of energy in my reserve to unsuccessfully close the gap between expectation and reality.
The solution: complete and total acceptance of what is—of your present set of circumstances: self, feelings, wants, and needs, for better or for worse.
Here is the key: you don’t have to be happy with or even have chosen your present set of circumstances in order to acknowledge them or to simply see them as they are in their unfiltered state.
Not you, nor your circumstances, nor the people in your life need to be perfect (or even any different than they are at this exact moment) in order for you to accept them.
You can accept uncertainty, and you can accept that sometimes, temporarily, you may not be feeling happy, and you might even be feeling pain inside. Allow it. Feel it. Listen to it.
The reason this is possible is because everything changes—all circumstances and feelings are constantly rearranging, changing, and forever in flux. Nothing is truly permanent, fixed, or secure. And perfectionism does nothing to change that.
To accept means to see and to acknowledge what is—with brutal and unflinching honesty. It means seeing without resistance and reserving the desire to control or to change what you see. No more hiding from or resisting reality.
Fortunately, this is the foundation for genuine and enduring self-love, self-compassion, and being truly grounded and in touch with your true self. This in turn, becomes the most natural way of authentically being able share boundless and replenishing love and compassion with others.
Hiding man image via Shutterstock