Recently my online writing group informally discussed the question of perfection. It began when one member was concerned that those who read her work would be disappointed in it -- because she, after editing and revising it, felt it could be better.
Others expressed the feeling of being plagued by the need for perfection, and all agreed it stifled their creativity.
After the discussion, I found myself still thinking about the ways in which the drive for perfection expresses itself. I asked myself why most people feel both the need to realize perfection and the need to punish themselves for failing to achieve it.
And trouble. Parents, eager to protect us (and their authority) limit our freedom with rules. Good children obey and are safe. Children who defy these restrictions are called bad. They get into trouble and possibly into danger. A variety of bad called careless, those who ignore rather than defy, also court trouble and danger.
For many children, the choice is clear. Once they reach school (a clearly dangerous setting, since they don't have their parents to protect them), they learn anew that following the rules will keep them safe. The definition of safety takes on some new meanings: acceptance, approval, success. Rules also get more complex. A misplaced comma or arithmetic mistake can cause trouble. A perfect score on a test leads to approval and success. It makes them feel that they're good enough.
They learn not to paint pumpkins green. They don't write little stories about cats who solve physics problems or the Hamster Olympics. They learn to squelch original and dangerous lines of thought (or worse, circles).
There's very little room for creativity when no deviance from the right answer is allowed.
Perfectionism can also play a big role in the frustration and feeling many people experience in the area of learning. We have discovered that computers are treacherous and unpredictable machines. You can do the right thing to make it work twenty times, and it just sits there with a blank gray face.
Computer coding is also notoriously unforgiving. Leave out one little quotation mark or dot, and it won't do a thing for you.
Any area of learning offers challenges for perfectionists.
"I tried to learn astrology, but I could never remember what the Moon in 29 degrees Virgo in quintile to the Sun in 17 degrees Cancer meant.
"I know how to speak and pronounce French, but once in a written assignment, I forgot to put in the right accent in, and it's haunted me ever since.
"I planted a bulb 5.8 inches deep instead of six inches, and it didn't come up."
These may be extremes, but when I meet people who are computer experts, who speak seven or eight languages (or two or three), or who know anything I would like to know and don't, I feel inadequate, stupid, impatient, and frustrated. I especially feel this way if I'm trying to learn the subject involved.
In many ways, this, too, is a residue from school days. Do you remember the teacher asking a question whose answer wasn't in the textbook, one that involved figuring something out? Every class had at least one student whose hand went up immediately. (S)he would say what he thought, and the teacher would look approvingly at her and look at the rest of the class, as if to say, "Why didn't you know?"
This is excellent training for feeling inferior if you're not the first one to figure out something. It also inhibits creativity. Coming up with the "right" answer requires creativity. If, however, you get down on yourself for not being creative enough, it has the effect of stomping on a flower because it isn't growing fast enough.
If you feel impatient with your rate of growth in any area, consider this quotation:
Here's a similar viewpoint: "Many a genius has been slow of growth. Oaks that flourish for a thousand years do not spring up into beauty like a reed." --George H. Lewis
From knowing (or not knowing) the right answers in school, we grow to become adults who know (or don't know) the right answers for our lives. Life itself is an act of constant creation, and, for all the books that have been written on the subject of designing your life, they can't tell you how to specifically design yours.
And no one can. The choices that build the foundation for happy lives come from within ourselves. No one else can tell us what makes us happy (though they may certainly try).
Whether we're deciding what to make for breakfast, how to solve a work-related issue, how to guide children, or trying to decide what will make us happy at any moment, we are making the same kind of choices that a painter does with color or a writer with words.
Though so many of our choices may seem automatic and disconnected from our creative source, each choice, like each brush stroke or choice of word, is an attempt to manifest a part of a vision.
Such visions make us feel good when we imagine them: the ideal relationship or the perfect job. However, they never look exactly the same, once realized on the physical plane, as they do in our untouched inner space.
There are good reasons for this. We're usually envisioning the end result of our creation, rather than its beginning physical manifestation. A squalling, red-faced infant isn't the delightful child of one's dreams. The first, awkward stages of a romantic relationship don't reflect the vision of a harmonious, fulfilling partnership.
If we don't recognize that the creative unfolding is ongoing, we call our creations imperfect and may feel disappointed and may turn our backs on them. Or we may try harder, going back to detail-oriented perfectionism or trying to learn more, so that this time we get it right.
Instead of the left brain organizing and focusing the right brain's creative outflow, the logical mind tries to control and confine creativity to such an extent that only a weak trickle of ideas flows. The vast potential of our creative genius becomes stifled.
The most visionary artists have taken a different attitude towards this phenomenon, as expressed in the statements below:
The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. --Michelangelo
All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. --William Faulkner
While the creative geniuses we respect seek the realization of their visions as ardently as others, they recognize that the path of seeking is what matters. They are always looking for new ways to see, to think, to be, in order to be more deeply connected to creative source. They know that the journey never ends—nor would they wish it to end.
Salvador Dali said, "Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." Richard Bach puts it more strongly: " Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you're alive, it isn't."
When we study nature, we notice the budding and flowering of plants. We see that as long as there is physical life, there is change and growth. Humans are no different. We'll never achieve perfection. Once we realize that, we can relax and enjoy the journey.
As we let go of perfection as a crippling goal, we may discover it as a present reality. "The true perfection of man," Oscar Wilde said, "lies not in what man has, but in what man is."
Each of us is a spark of unlimited creativity, come to physical form to play with self-expression. What we do or say or think might not always be perfect, but who we are always is.
One of the most effective methods I know for stopping a downward slide into self-condemnation for imperfection is to catch myself at it as soon as possible. Then I say, "There I go, doing perfection again." This can apply the brakes.
Sometimes I also ask myself how important this will be in five years, five months, five weeks, even five minutes.
I pay close attention to the "should" word.
These steps require a commitment to release the need for perfection a willingness to listen to one's thoughts in a new way, without judging them. It also requires patience for the times when you forget and get caught up in cyclone-force emotions.
You can also benefit from a number of crystals and flower essences.
Clear Quartz helps us to realize that our perfection is innate, regardless of what we accomplish.
Green calcite, which is traditionally used for mental/emotional rigidity, helps us to let go of impossibly high standards and relax into who we are.
Golden and blue topaz relate to flow. They ease the passage of creative energies. Golden topaz specifically relates to self-awareness, prosperity, and a feeling of being connected to the sun like energy of self. Blue topaz specifically channels creativity in the form of communication.
Rose quartz teaches us that true love and self-appreciation comes from within.
All the essences listed below are Bach Flower Remedies.
Guilt often accompanies feelings of imperfection. Pine, though broadly recommended for guilt, can be specifically used for feelings of moral imperfection.
In an emotional state calling for Crab Apple, the individual tends to externalize imperfection, perhaps being obsessive about the cleanliness of one's house or body. Crab Apple may be particular for teenagers who are troubled over bodily imperfections and changes.
Sometimes knowing that one can't do things perfectly becomes an excuse for not doing them at all, "I just can't do that the way it should be done" is a classic Larch response to challenge, and this remedy can help one realize that who we are isn't based on what we do.
For those who link perfection with speed of accomplishment, Impatiens is an ideal Remedy. It helps one to slow down and appreciate the journey.