by Al Coon
A British businessman once said, "The cost of perfection is prohibitive." He was referring to the manufacturing process, but he might have equally referred to any human endeavor. By spending more money and more time, a business can create a product that approaches closer to perfection. As customers, we pay more for the product that was produced by a manufacturer that spent the extra resources on attempting to approach closer to perfection. However, the cost of producing real perfection approaches infinity, the closer we approach to perfection.
Nothing done by humans is ever perfect. Nothing that you do, or that I do is perfect. There is always room for improvement. The belief that perfection is attainable creates a great deal of grief in people's lives. That grief comes in two common forms: 1) the internal perfectionist -- expecting perfection in oneself, and 2) the ever popular external perfectionist -- expecting perfection in others. Both forms of perfectionist can actually destroy lives, leaving wakes of destruction in their paths.
Being an internal perfectionist leads to a viscous circle of self-incrimination, depression and renewed determination to reach the impossible. Each failure leads to more shame and self-loathing. This is not from wishing to be evil or decadent, but from wanting to be perfect. By striving for perfection, and foolishly expecting to reach it, such a person is doomed to fail before he even begins. It is like trying to sail a boat through a reef with no opening, it is impossible!
Since the internal perfectionist believes that perfection is possible, he only has one possible target for assigning guilt for the failure that was unavoidable. To him it is obvious, that he was not determined enough. He didn't try hard enough. He was no good. After a few cycles of doing this, the seeker of perfection will often find that he evaluates his own importance in the world, his own value, just below the scum that coats the bottom of a stagnant pool. It is an outrage! Here is a unique and precious human being, who is striving, not to destroy others, or to do evil in the world, but to reach for the stars in search of the highest ideals. And all he gets for his trouble is the lash from a whip he holds with his own mental hands.
How much better off would he be if instead of believing in perfection, he would believe in improvement! Improvement is always possible, for anyone. Since perfection is impossible, that means that we all are imperfect, and therefore we all have room for improvement. Fortunately, the human mind is extremely flexible, and it can be programmed with better habits, which will produce improvement.
Since improvement is always possible, what makes sense for each of us, is to select some area that we would like to improve and then set to work to move in a positive direction for that area. The time to celebrate is when we actually see some improvement. We should not wait until we reach perfection, or even until we reach a realistic goal before we celebrate. It is the movement in a positive direction that is of value. As long as we are moving, we are improving, and that means we are continually becoming better off than we were. That is worth celebrating!
Compare the difference in the state of mind between the internal perfectionist, and one who is striving for realistic improvement. First we have someone who feels like he is walking a tightrope with no net, or even a pole to help with his balance. Each step is a terror, as he knows he is going to fall, if not on this step, then the next one. He is never really happy because he is afraid of failing, and when he does fail, he is even more miserable. Next we have someone who is moving along towards a goal, slowly at times, and even moving backwards at times, but all the while looking forward towards a goal that he knows he can reach in time. He sees the goal draw ever nearer and feels tremendously good about himself -- for doing something positive. He is walking his daily path with a smile on his face, and warm feelings of self-esteem in his heart.
They say that peace lies within, and this is one of the components of that worthy treasure: Accepting who and what we are, and then working to make positive changes where we can. It is very much like a sculptor working with a piece of stone. He will chip away at some part of the stone, and make it more to his liking. Over time he will make other improvements. He will never be done, because perfection is impossible, but the stone shape will improve, becoming something better. It is a lifetime's work of love.
The external perfectionist, is the one that is most often criticized. We have a name for what he is practicing: hypocrisy. However, the practitioner of this form of torture, does not view himself as an evil person. In fact, he thinks very highly of himself for his ability to "straighten others out." He is very astute at finding imperfections in others and "kindly" pointing them out, not to hurt, but "to help."
The external perfectionist will often attack some unsuspecting traveler, who had opened up the details of his personal journey. The attack would include a categorical declaration, that the intended target is definitely "not OP," because of some lapse from the perfect ideal. The external perfectionist is quick to note any such lapse. He has deceived himself into believing that his attack is actually supplying positive support. He does not realize that it would be more kind to simply call his target scathing names, than to use the WW plan as a club to beat the poor victim with.
If he would stop and think for a moment of what is going on, perhaps he would hold his tongue. He is "trying to help" an individual who has spent his whole life being overweight. The innocent target is, or has been, perhaps 100, 200, or more pounds overweight, and for the very first time, he feels like he has some type of control over the monster that has been trashing his life. Finally, he is eating food in quantities small enough to where he is losing weight! He is not suffering from terrible hunger pains, and he feels great about it. He posts on the message board what he ate today, for some praise, and some positive comments and suggestions. Expectations are high!
Then enters the external perfectionist, who only sees imperfection and ignores simple improvement as inconsequential. He proceeds to methodically ram it down his victim's throat that he did not eat the correct number of carbs, or enough vegetables, so he is not "OP." How very helpful he has been.
And what of the poor victim? He is going to think, "Well, forget this. I don't need to work this hard for abuse. I could get that before, without any effort."
What did this victim eat before he started his journey? He probably was eating doughnuts, Big Macs, and numerous other things that are not healthy. However, even if he eats exactly the same things, but only less of them, he has made a healthy change in his life. ANY healthy change made by someone deserves praise, not attack.
What the external perfectionist has blinded himself to is the fact that no one is perfect, and to attack someone for his imperfections is not only counter productive, it is pure hypocrisy. One individual may be strong in an area where someone else is weak, and it may make him feel superior. However, if the truth were known, that same person is weak in other areas, because he is human, and no human is perfect. Looking at the big picture, it is a simple fact that no journey exists that could not be improved in some way.
What is important, truly important, is that someone is on a journey, striving for a goal. What is critical for the external perfectionist to understand is that judgmental commentary on someone else's journey stands far more likelihood of ending the journey altogether than of improving the quality of the journey.
Knowledge is a wonderful thing. Pursuing additional quantities of it, is one of the real joys in my life. My conception of paradise is a place where learning would go on eternally, unabated. Of course the more anyone knows about nutrition and the WW plan, the easier will be the journey. That is why we ask questions when we are unsure. When a question is asked, that is the time for wisdom and knowledge to be handed out. An open mind works like a sponge, soaking up far more information.
On the other hand, an attacked mind will close up like a turtle pulling into his shell for protection. It will do anything to escape the barrage, which is perceived as anger and hatred. Such a mind would rather drop everything and run away than to learn. A good teacher does not attack his students, or tell them that they are "bad students." Praise a student and he will respond by trying to earn more praise. Criticize him thoughtlessly, and you will lose him to apathy or outright hostility.
There are many parts to a healthy lifestyle. Eating the correct amount is one part. Eating the correct mix of food is another. Getting enough exercise is still another. If you continue down this list you find: getting enough water; getting enough calcium, and vitamins; getting enough sleep; and one of the most critical -- learning to have a healthy mental attitude towards life and stress. There are many more things that could be added to the list. You need to be at the correct weight, and have the correct amount of muscle tone. You need to have a well developed cardiovascular system, and low levels of cholesterol so that you do not harden and clog your arteries.
There are a tremendous number of variables that all combine to form our overall level of health, and turning even one of those variables in the right direction is a plus. It would be great if we could all have each of the variables dialed-in to perfection, but we are humans, and imperfect. Therefore, if we are smart, and eager to enjoy life, and to help others to enjoy life, we will celebrate the positive in others, and in ourselves, and correct the negative in others through personal example, and through answering only questions that are asked.
Have you ever seen the face of a child light up in pure radiance when he is exposed to praise? Think of the deep emotional impact that has. Think of the reservoir of motivation that is being filled at that moment. A child does not hide his feelings like the adult does, but the adult, when he is praised, has an inner glow that is just as great as the child has. It is a driving force, and by golly he wants more of it!
Now think of what someone who is overweight has gone through during his life. He has been thought of as ugly, and undesirable by not only others but by himself. He is literally dying for self-esteem. It is like a tomb in his soul, and suddenly a crack in the stone has been found, and a gleam of light has broken through to warm places that have been cold for as long has he can remember. He has actually eaten in control, and the point in the future where his weight will be at goal is not only possible, it is probable! He has hope, real honest to goodness hope, for which he would have paid any amount of money or sacrificed almost anything to acquire.
And then this wounded soul, who just starting to believe, and is fearfully sticking his head out into the real world, finds a sniper firing rounds at his head, declaring that he is a failure and not OP. What is a wounded soul going to do with this criticism? What has he always done with it? He runs from it into his inner sanctum, with his food and his weight to insulate him from the cruel darts that have always been hurled at him from others.
What many fail to realize about the external perfectionist is that his attack is the sign of his own wounded soul. He is one who has found the porcupine quill to be the defense of choice rather than the cave of solitude. He who spends his time attacking is not able to find the emotional strength inside himself to reach out lovingly to others. He instead builds up his own wounded ego by tearing down others' egos. The external perfectionist needs the very same thing that the people he is attacking need: feelings of self worth.
In summary, it is imperative that we understand the difference between striving for improvement, defined as moving towards an ideal, and vainly striving for true perfection. Improvement is always possible, but perfection never is. Striving for improvement gives feelings of accomplishment and pride, while striving for perfection brings frustration and discouragement. It is a healthy attitude that breeds a striving for improvement, and it should be well nurtured. We would do well to steer our boats into that safe harbor, as we avoid the deadly twin rocks of the internal and the external perfectionist.
By Al, My Wonderful, Supportive Husband