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Is being good-enough good enough?
The idea of perfection has been a fixture in the stream of Western history. It was at the forefront of the Athenian philosophical revolution: Socrates-Plato-Aristotle. For Aristotle, happiness itself is the most perfect of all things. So it made sense to strive for both siblings—happiness and perfection. Not so much in the modern world.
We’ve begun to see ourselves as dominated by the tyranny of perfectionism. Perfection, we have become suspicious, is an enemy of happiness.
The ancients wanted to know, “What is perfection?,” and “how do we strive for it?” As moderns, we are of two minds. On the one hand, we have become indignant, “Perfection?!! According to whom? Who has the right to say?” We reject that some universal set of virtues could make one person any more human than another.
“Perfection is relative”, we say. "You are good enough just the way you are." “Strive for betterment, not perfection.” “Be your own judge. Set your own standards.”
On the other hand, we are utterly compelled by demonstrations of excellence: Nadia Comăneci, Montreal, summer of ’76, first female Olympic gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 ever. Not an easily forgotten name. Or the frenetic roar when Felix Hernandez became the most recent major league baseball pitcher to deliver a “perfect game”—not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game. We are taken by great achievement—in sports, physical fitness, science, modeling, or acting. It is not our personal betterment so much that captures our ravenous attention. It is the achievements of the extraordinary—the superlative.
But we are suspicious. We ask, “Do these achievements really make a person happy?” We note the harm that follows from merciless ideals. The consequences are devastating in restrictive eating disorders. The relentless pursuit of beauty and bodily perfection, however off-target the aim might be, has proven instrumental in the experience of severe self-hate, social withdrawal, bodily neglect, even death, and at times by suicide.
Psychotherapists fight the tyranny of perfection by helping to soften critical self-judgments, helping to relieve individuals from their anguish and to feel better about themselves. The rigidity of perfectionists can be well served by encouraging playfulness, enlarging internal dialogue, learning to accept limitations and revise expectations.
Seemingly, perfection is a bad idea altogether. It is surely a blessing to have a breather from authoritarian standards and harmful judgments. But must unhappiness be the destiny of pursuing perfection? Is the problem with perfection or is it the way we pursue it? Generally, ideals of perfection cannot be reached. So why aim for them? Studies demonstrate unrealistic goals promote a sense of failure, a poor sense of self-efficacy, self esteem, and even depression. We feel better when we set concrete achievable goals. But what set of goals are most worthy of pursuit? No doubt, if one sets a goal to count the number of blades of grass on their lawn, they will have a sense of satisfaction when they’re through. But that is probably not a very meaningful goal to most individuals? Suppose the goals we want to achieve most are neither concrete nor achievable. How happy can one be if they’re not pursuing the goals they find most worthwhile? We are destined to fall short in pursuit of perfection. Yet the ideals of our highest gaze come to articulate the character of our real achievements.
According to the myth Plato articulated in his rendering of the ancient playwright Aristophanes, we originate in a state of perfection. Once severed from that state, we always long to return to it. Thus articulated, longing for perfection is an inescapable part of our nature. Though we never achieve completeness or perfection, longing for it becomes the sweet compensation for our initial wound. The contemplation of perfection and the gaze upon its likeness becomes an end in itself.