The power of perfectionism

michelangeloThese days it seems that perfectionism is a quality that you are better off keeping under your hat. Telling someone that you are a perfectionist often results in little more than a weary if slightly sympathetic reaction. Perfectionism is seen as a problem and considered a risk factor when it comes to burnout and depression. Many of my patients tell me that they have previously been informed by a doctor or coach that they are simply too perfectionistic, that ‘good is usually good enough’ and that there’s ‘no joy in being an over-achiever’. And if I then ask them whether they have managed to temper their perfectionistic urges, my patients usually reply that it is not as easy as it sounds.

Bach, Buddha and Brené
I believe it’s a terrible pity when people try to curb their sense of perfectionism, because perfectionism is essentially a wonderful thing. Without perfectionists we would not have Bach’s glorious concertos, nor a Stradivarius upon which to play them for that matter; no frescos in de Sistine Chapel; no lenses in Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s first microscope; and no Buddha under the banyan tree. Perfectionism furnishes us with things that delight, help and inspire us. The American scholar Brené Brown wrote a book called ‘The gifts of imperfection’ that became a worldwide bestseller. It inspired millions of people but, contradictory and all as it might sound, her book would never have turned out so good or been so successful without the right dose of perfectionism.

The power of creation
Perfectionism is also to be found everywhere in the natural world around us: plants do all they can to produce their most beautiful flowers, birds sing only the sweetest of tunes, and spiders are never half- hearted about spinning a web. Religious people see the hand of God at work in these forms of perfectionism, while in Chinese philosophy they are seen as examples of nature manifesting itself in its very essence, the blueprint of life, which they call Jing. The Jing is the power within creation: the urge that was present in the earth’s primordial soup billions of years ago – creative power turned into something tangible. Hardly surprising, therefore, that it is often referred to as the hand of God.

Balance and harmony
The Jing can only really unfold when all of its powers are in balance. Perfection is therefore a sign of balance and harmony. Just think of Bach, Buddha and Brené Brown and you will see what I mean. Masters of the Eastern traditions would look twice at you if you tried to tell them that it is better not to try and achieve the best result possible in all your endeavours. The pursuit of complete mastery is essential in all of those traditions. Japanese master acupuncturists from whom I have received instruction are continually in the process of refining their techniques and never stop asking for feedback from other masters, even when they are well into their seventies or eighties.

Handbrake manoeuvre
Trying to solve your problems by curbing your sense of perfectionism is akin to attempting to avoid being fined for speeding by driving with the handbrake on – neither clever nor satisfying. A far better idea is to find out how you can best make use of that perfectionism in your life. This is often our greatest stumbling block. We tend to apply our perfectionism only to the desired final result, forgetting in the meantime that the final result lies somewhere far off in the future and beyond our reach in the present moment. Strange and all as it might sound, you have absolutely no control over that final result. And it is precisely because of that fact that you become tense, push too hard, ignore the need for rest and eventually lose all sense of pleasure in what you are doing. You then realise that this represents a significant threat to the desired outcome, so you decide to expend even more energy on your efforts. This inevitably leads to a negative spiral that can sometimes result in depression or burnout.

The path is the goal
So, what to do? The Zen sayings ‘the path is the goal’ and ‘the way is beneath our feet’ can point us in the right direction. They tell us that we need to focus our perfectionism on the process instead of on the result. By continually improving the process, the result, too, will be improved. This provides you with an entirely different perspective. When you are trying to perfect the process, it is important that you are fully rested, relaxed, capable of enjoying what you are doing, comfortable with your surroundings, focused and fully informed, and have access to any support you might require. You remain the focal point of the process: what do I need in order to be able to perform at my optimum level? How can I facilitate that myself? Furthermore, never forget that the process always takes place in the ‘now’. Your attention must be fully focused on what you are doing at any given moment. Step by step you will reach your goal.

Don’t be disappointed if the final result is different to what you had expected or hoped. See it as feedback that will help you to further refine the process, and no more than that. The ultimate satisfaction is to be found in the process itself, in the steps that you take using all your powers of concentration. If you proceed in such a manner then you will soon notice that you are less affected by the criticism of others and that you become less and less prone to comparing your results to those of your peers. When Brené Brown was writing her best-selling book, I’m sure she didn’t spend much time pondering potential sales figures or how she could outdo her fellow authors. However, I dare to presume that she did spend quite a lot of time reviewing and rewriting her manuscript until she felt that is was just right, until she was happy that what she had put down on paper was exactly the message she wished to get across to her readers. Your chances of writing a bestseller are miniscule to say the least, and that ambition is unlikely to be the thing that drives you to write in the first place. But it is possible and realistic to come to regard your own life as an on-going process of creation, one in which you find out what your own ‘message’ is as you go along. And perfectionism can help in that process.

The hand of God
If your sense of perfectionism is a source of trouble for you, then instead of trying to shirk it you should see if you can somehow transform and improve it. Set about perfecting your perfectionism. The resulting disengaged form of perfectionism becomes a valuable source of strength in your quest for personal development because the process you are engaged in and constantly trying to improve is, in fact, YOU: your own life. By fine-tuning the steps you take in that process and bringing everything into harmony, the ultimate blueprint will unfold before you. The essence of what you truly are will become more visible in all that you do, and all that you do will synthesise perfectly with who you are. You may have already experienced this feeling: that moment when everything feels just right, when you feel inspired and connected to everything. Some people describe this feeling as being touched by the hand of God, regardless of whether they believe he exists or not…

Translation: Danny Guinan


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