Why do we suffer? What causes us to doubt and worry, to feel worthless?
There are probably many answers, but one I am certain of is the constant striving towards perfection.
It can apply to our work, physical appearance, our minds, and our lives in general.
We want the perfect body, the perfect soul, mind, house, partner, job and more.
Like many, I have doubts that I will ever be good enough. As a self-made man, a partner, lover, friend, meetup host, etc.
We think that if we get the right job, the right partner, find our purpose, then happiness and success will follow. We want a life that looks good on Facebook, something that others will be impressed by.
It’s as if we think there’s this ‘hole in the universe’ that’s just right for us, and everything will be better once we find it and slot ourselves into it.
But this just leads to the desperate grasping and striving to fit ourselves into that hole.
We are afraid of the uncertainty we face, anxious, about our chances, and we get angry or disillusioned when things don’t work out.
So we choose power, and status and wealth as the aim in an effort to feel safe, yet that’s no guarantee.
Striving for the Ideal is an interesting but hopelessly problematic way to think about our relationship to the world. It leads to a lot of suffering.
It also comes across as self-centred when we think our lives, the cosmos should conform to our ideas.
It suggests the cosmos is in some way designed for us. A modern version of the geocentric notion that the universe revolves around the earth.
Also, it’s based far too much on a sense of entitlement. That somehow we deserve success and fulfilment and the cosmos should provide it.
Where does this perfection idea come from?
Despite our claims to be compassionate and tolerant, it’s in many ways a punitive society we live in.
Undesirables, fringe groups, those with mental illness, LGBT, Goths, immigrants, singles are looked down upon, discriminated against, even persecuted.
It always starts with moralizing, and normative ideas, which leads to and judging, shaming, and prejudice.
The moral judgements and values of society. Parents, peers, siblings, the media, they all shaped the box we are expected to fit into.
Sexual orientation and identity, religious affiliation or (lack of it), wealth & status, beauty, Age, introversion, sex, marital status, ethnicity have all been used as the basis of such behaviour.
This this the basis of our suffering. Not living up to an established standard. It explains why life seems to feel like a desparate hustle for worthiness.
By contrast, the far east has a different outlook on the world. Ideas from Buddhism and Taoism understand that the cosmos is not about flawless perfection.
One manifestation is the idea of Wabi-sabi.
This is an artistic, aesthetic appreciation of the imperfect. Where western art is about the flawless beauty of the gods and heroes, like Michaelangelo’s David. Wabi-sabi takes appreciation of a cup or a vase that has been damaged and cracked.
Such imperfection is a reminder that the world is not perfect, that things break and crumble, beauty fades and people die.
To live well in their eyes is to appreciate life with all it’s transient and imperfect nature. To live in the moments we have.
The West, by contrast, has us chasing perfection, and ideal. Our lives have become that frantic chase.
Take one example I’m familiar with, In Social Anxiety. It’s the fear of not meeting a social standard.
The fear of failure, or being judged harshly. The fear of not matching up.
Our mind goes into overdrive about what might happen or tries to find a way to make ourselves acceptable.
We are anxious because we have impossible ideas about social adeptness.
Also being a good parent, good friend, good partner, leader and more.
We appear to have an inordinate need to be seen in a favourable light by others. Letting them down, upsetting them, reflects badly upon ourselves.
Anxiety it seems the effort our minds take in trying we are good enough, or the worry that we are not.
It’s not just impossible goals that are the problem, but it’s also impossibly idealised methods and routes we take to get there.
We think we have to take the straightest, easiest, linear route to the end result.
With all the choices today it’s now become even more difficult to decide what choice to make, and whether or not it’s the best choice.
Doubts will linger about whether we made the right choice, and regrets may form when we later realise we made the wrong one.
The need for things to go smoothly results in the doubts we have when we find ourselves struggling. We doubt our capacity, the choices we made, and our suitability for the task we have set ourselves.
The messy world we live in
Here are a few thoughts on what to-do about that nagging voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough.
The struggle is the path
We don’t realise that struggle, randomness and doubt are part of the process that’s necessary to achieve our goals. Anything that’s worth being built must set itself against the desire for things to remain the same. So a conflict is inevitable.
If we are to create change in the world that lasts we ourselves must change, and that take a lot of courage and because changes hurts, change means giving up on things we think are important.
The struggle, the mistakes are the evidence that you are trying to change. So we must find a way to come to terms with that and keep moving.
World in Flux
What we don’t seem to notice is that the world is constantly changing.
It’s not just changing values, societies and technology, which are visible.
There’s also the invisible changes. You are changing over time, your body but also your mind. Priorities change, wisdom develops, experiences gain, memories list our rewritten.
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’ – Heraclitus
The idea of perfection requires a world that remains static.
In such a changing world perfection just becomes an idea inside our heads. One that seem to torment us daily.
The next obvious problem is, ‘who get to decide what’s perfect?’
We all have ideas about what perfect is but as sociologists and anthropologists point out these ideas are at least to some degree subjective.
It depends on the issue.
Science has given us the ideal waist to hip ratio for women’s attractiveness. But a woman’s attractiveness is not defined just by a metric.
What makes a great piece of art? What’s counts as a perfect friend, a business, partner, or conversation?
No-one seems to know, yet we all have an opinion.
‘Stop trying to be the square peg fitting into the round hole’ – Richard Collison (Click to Tweet)
It’s time to wake up.
The universe doesn’t have this place marked out for us. The universe is indifferent to our existence. We seem to have become full of our own bloated self-importance when we think that we deserve success, happiness.
Circumstances are changing, the world is in flux. So there can’t be this perfect place, perfect job, partner, or life waiting for us.
We need to get over ourselves and our own elevated self importance.
‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first’ – Mark Twain
A Life of choices
‘We don’t find our purpose, our place, we make it’ – Richard Collison (Click to Tweet)
Instead of the ideal goal, the ideal path, think of it as creating your life through the choices and decisions you make.
Entrepreneurship, creating art, starting a business, the difference you make in other people’s lives.
Just remember success isn’t out there waiting for you, it’s something you have to create.
Happiness is not a destination; it’s the journey. Purpose is not the destination either, it’s the direction you take.
What’s important is the course you set yourself upon, the work you do to find what you want, and need.
The desire for perfection, both in ourselves and the world is setting ourselves up to fail and to suffer.
Perfectionism is so much a part of our lives, and it manifests most notably as the anxiety and depression we suffer from. The worry that we can’t match up to the ideal way, and the despair we feel when we know we don’t
It comes down to a mismatch between our desires and expectations for a comfortable, successful, happy life, and the reality that neither our existence nor the cosmos are neither perfect and simple.
Forget notions of perfection and embrace mystery and uncertainty.
‘We are not simple shapes in a simple world, but a complex web meshed into a more complex world’ – Richard Collison (Click to Tweet)
The idealism we see in ourselves is a reflection of the idealism society.
It’s not that we shouldn’t try to create a better world. We need to remember that perfection is not attainable, and shrug of the inadequacy we feel when we don’t match up.
There comes a point where you realise that you no longer want to try and live up to an impossible ideal. You see that the idea itself didn’t come from you but from the society.
Life is too short to try and live up to other people’s expectations.
When you see that then you start living your own life.
We need to change our society and culture. More acceptance and tolerance. That accounts for the reality of a complex and changing world. With set of values we can all get behind, and allow individuals to live without fear of persecution.
Another lesson here is our attitudes towards others. We should not be so hard on others; quick to judge them. Otherwise, we become a source of anxiety and suffering in others.
If you have any thoughts on your struggle to be perfect, please let me know in the comments section, I would like to hear them.
Image Credit: joingate / 123RF Stock Photo