The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.
It was mid-January. I saw nothing around me as I cut across Harvard Yard toward the austere psychology building on the other side of campus. Once there, I stood before my professor’s closed door. I raised my eyes and scanned the ID numbers on the grade sheet, column by column, and then straight across the page, finding it difficult to see clearly what was in front of me. Once again, my anxiety had rendered me nearly blind.
My first two years of college had been unhappy. I always felt that the sword of Damocles was hanging over my head. What if I missed a crucial word during a lecture? What if I was caught off guard during a seminar and was unable to answer the professor’s question? What if I didn’t have a chance to proofread my paper for a third and final time before submitting it? Any of these situations could lead to an imperfect performance, to failure, and to the end of the possibility of becoming the kind of person and attaining the kind of life that I envisioned for myself.
That day, standing at my professor’s door, one of my great fears materialized. I failed to get an A. I rushed back to my room and locked the door behind me.
Nobody likes to fail, but there is a difference between a normal aversion to failure and an intense fear of failure. Aversion to failure motivates us to take necessary precautions and to work harder to achieve success. By contrast, intense fear of failure often handicaps us, making us reject failure so vigorously that we cannot take the risks that are necessary for growth. This fear not only compromises our performance but jeopardizes our overall psychological well-being.
Failure is an inescapable part of life and a critically important part of any successful life. We learn to walk by falling, to talk by babbling, to shoot a basket by missing, and to color the inside of a square by scribbling outside the box. Those who intensely fear failing end up falling short of their potential. We either learn to fail or we fail to learn.
Ten years later I was eating lunch in the dining hall of Leverett House, one of Harvard’s undergraduate dorms. It was October, the fall semester was in progress, and most of the leaves outside the window had turned glaring orange, red, and yellow. The most interesting ones to me were those that seemed still to be struggling to let nature take its course and turn those brighter hues.
“May I join you?” Matt, a senior, asked. My mouth was full, so I nodded and smiled. “I hear you’re teaching a class on happiness,” Matt said, as he sat down opposite me.
“That’s right, it’s about positive psychology,” I responded, eager to tell him all about my new course.
But before I could continue, Matt jumped in. “You know, my roommate Steve is taking your class, so you’d better watch out.”
“Watch out? Why?” I asked, expecting him to divulge some dark secret about Steve.
“Because,” he replied, “if I ever see you looking unhappy, I’m going to tell him.”
Matt was clearly joking—or, at least half joking. The assumption underlying his remark, though, was a serious—and a common—one: that a happy life is composed of an endless stream of positive emotions and that a person who experiences envy or anger, disappointment or sadness, fear or anxiety is not really happy. But in fact, the only people who don’t experience these normal unpleasant feelings are psychopaths. And the dead. Experiencing these emotions, at times, is actually a good sign—a sign that we are most likely not psychopathic and that we are most certainly alive.
Paradoxically, when we do not allow ourselves to experience painful emotions, we limit our capacity for happiness. All our feelings flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. And these painful emotions only expand and intensify when they aren’t released. When they finally break through—and they eventually do break through in one way or another—they overwhelm us.
Painful emotions are an inevitable part of the experience of being human, and therefore rejecting them is ultimately rejecting part of our humanity. To lead a full and fulfilling life—a happy life—we need to allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotions. In other words, we need to give ourselves the permission to be human.
Alasdaire Clayre’s life seemed perfect. He was a star student at Oxford University and later became one of its most celebrated scholars, winning accolades, awards, and fellowships. Not one to restrict himself to the ivory tower, he published a novel and a collection of poems and recorded two albums that included some of his own compositions. He then wrote, directed, produced, and presented The Heart of the Dragon, a twelve-part television series on China.
The series won an Emmy Award, but Clayre was not there to receive it. At the age of forty-eight, shortly after completing the series, Clayre committed suicide by jumping in front of a moving train.
Would knowing that he was about to win the Emmy have made any difference? His ex-wife says that “the Emmy was a symbol of success that would have meant a great deal to him, that would have given him self-esteem.” But, she adds, “he had so many symbols of success much grander than the Emmy” and none of them satisfied him: “he needed a new one each time he did something.”1
Ultimately, Clayre never considered anything he did to be good enough. Although he was clearly a great success, he was unable to see himself as successful. He actually rejected success. First, he consistently measured himself against standards that were almost impossible to meet. Second, even when he attained the near impossible, he would quickly dismiss his success as trivial and move on to the next impossible dream.
The desire for success is part of our nature. And many of us are driven to reach greater and greater heights, which can lead to personal success and societal progress. Great expectations can indeed lead to great rewards. However, to lead a life that is both successful and fulfilling, our standards of success must be realistic, and we must be able to enjoy, and be grateful for, our achievements. We need to ground our dreams in reality and appreciate our accomplishments.
These three stories—my extreme anxiety over a less-than-perfect grade, Matt’s warning that I had better seem happy all the time, and the tragedy of Clayre’s inability to enjoy success—capture three distinct yet interrelated aspects of perfectionism: rejection of failure, rejection of painful emotions, and rejection of success. We see the negative effects of these aspects of perfectionism all around us and often within us.
We see intense fear of failure in schoolchildren who do not venture outside the box, who stop experimenting, and who thus diminish their ability to learn and to grow. We see it in college students who become chronic procrastinators, afraid to begin a project if they are not certain of a perfect outcome. We see it in the workplace, where innovation is sacrificed on the altar of the tried-and-true, the safe—and the mediocre.
Behaviors like these are not the only manifestations of intense fear of failure. Sometimes we turn this fear inward. We all know people who seem perennially cheerful even in the face of major disappointments, who are relentlessly optimistic regardless of objective reality, who bounce back quickly and seem emotionally unscathed following real traumas and tragedies. While a positive attitude and resilience clearly contribute to well-being, rejecting painful emotions because there is no room for them in our idealized vision of a happy life is unhealthy in the long run. Taking emotional shortcuts—detouring to avoid certain feelings—can, paradoxically, diminish happiness.
It’s easy to understand how perfectionism leads to the rejection of failure and painful emotions. What is surprising, though, is how perfectionism can lead to the rejection of success. We see this in people who seem to “have it all” but are nevertheless unhappy. If the only dream we have is of a perfect life, we are doomed to disappointment since such dreams simply cannot come true in the real world. It was Clayre’s intense perfectionism that made all of his real-life accomplishments seem trivial to him and made him unable to take real and lasting pleasure in his successes.
Can you recognize yourself or someone you know in one of the three stories?
For a long time, perfectionism was considered by psychologists as a kind of neurosis. In 1980 psychologist David Burns described Perfectionists as “those whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.”2 Recently, psychologists have begun to see perfectionism as more complex and have begun to explore the ways in which it may not be purely negative. Indeed, they have found that perfectionism can be beneficial in some ways, driving people to work hard and set high personal standards.
In light of this, psychologists today differentiate between positive perfectionism, which is adaptive and healthy, and negative perfectionism, which is maladaptive and neurotic.3 I regard these two types of perfectionism as so dramatically different in both their underlying nature and their ramifications that I prefer to use entirely different terms to refer to them. Throughout this book, I will refer to negative perfectionism simply as perfectionism and to positive perfectionism as optimalism.”4
The Oxford English Dictionary defines optimal as the “best, most favorable, especially under a particular set of circumstances.” Finding the optimal—whether it is the best use of the limited time we have in a day (or in our lives) or the best house we can buy given our budget—is something we are all actually accustomed to doing. We acknowledge the constraints of reality—that there are only twenty-four hours in a day, that we have a limited amount of money to spend—and we arrange our lives accordingly.
The researchers who introduced the concept of positive psychology described it as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning.”5 They understood that there are inherent limitations to being human, that we all must make trade-offs in life, and that no one can have it all. The fundamental question that positive psychology asks is the following: what is the best possible life that we can live? In this sense, positive psychology, with its focus on the optimal, is quite different from much of what we find in the self-help movement, which so often invites us to imagine and aspire to living a perfect life. That aspiration, paradoxically, can lead to a great deal of frustration and unhappiness.
The key difference between the Perfectionist and the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it. We will explore this important distinction later, but for now we can see this difference in the way each perceives and reacts to failure, painful emotions, and success.
The Perfectionist expects her path toward any goal—and, indeed, her entire journey through life—to be direct, smooth, and free of obstacles. When, inevitably, it isn’t—when, for instance, she fails at a task, or when things don’t quite turn out the way she expected—she is extremely frustrated and has difficulty coping. While the Perfectionist rejects failure, the Optimalist accepts it as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success. She understands that failure to get the job she wanted or arguing with her spouse is part of a full and fulfilling life; she learns what she can from these experiences and emerges stronger and more resilient. I was unhappy in college, in large part because I could not accept failure as a necessary part of learning—and of living.
The Perfectionist believes that a happy life comprises an uninterrupted stream of positive emotions. And because he, of course, aspires to be happy, he rejects painful emotions. He denies himself the permission to feel sad when a work opportunity is lost or to experience the deep pain that follows the dissolution of a meaningful relationship. The Optimalist, on the other hand, accepts that painful emotions are an inevitable part of being alive. He gives room for sadness and pain, allowing such feelings to deepen his overall experience of life—the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. Matt, the student who jokingly threatened to report me to his roommate if he saw me unhappy, thought that a person teaching happiness should radiate joy 24-7. Matt’s idea was not only unrealistic, it was in fact a recipe for unhappiness.
The Perfectionist is never satisfied. She consistently sets goals and standards that are for all intents and purposes impossible to meet, thereby from the outset rejecting the possibility of success. No matter what she achieves—how well she does in school or how high up the work ladder she climbs—she can never take any pleasure in her accomplishments. No matter what she has—how much money she has made, how wonderful her spouse is, how much recognition she receives from her peers—it is never good enough for her. What she is actually doing is rejecting success from her life, because regardless of her objective successes, she never feels successful. The Optimalist also sets extremely high standards, but her standards are attainable because they are grounded in reality. When she meets her goals, she appreciates her successes and takes time to experience gratitude for her accomplishments. In this sense, what differentiates the Optimalist from the Perfectionist is the Optimalist’s acceptance of reality. When the Optimalist reaches her goals, she feels real satisfaction and real pleasure in her success. Clayre desperately chased success throughout his life, but because his view of what success meant was unrealistic, he could never succeed (in his terms) and thus could never be happy.
Perfectionists reject reality and replace it with a fantasy world—a world in which there is no failure and no painful emotions and in which their standards for success, no matter how unrealistic, can actually be met. Optimalists accept reality—they accept that in the real world some failure and sorrow is inevitable and that success has to be measured against standards that are actually attainable.
Perfectionists pay an extremely high emotional price for rejecting reality. Their rejection of failure leads to anxiety, because the possibility that they may fail is always there. Their rejection of painful emotions often leads to an intensification of the very emotion they are trying to suppress, ultimately leading to even more pain. Their rejection of real-world limits and constraints leads them to set unreasonable and unattainable standards for success, and because they can never meet these standards, they are constantly plagued by feelings of frustration and inadequacy.
Optimalists, on the other hand, derive great emotional benefit, and are able to lead rich and fulfilling lives, by accepting reality. Because they accept failure as natural—even if they do not enjoy failing—they experience less performance anxiety and derive more enjoyment from their activities. Because they accept painful emotions as an inevitable part of being alive, they do not exacerbate them by trying to suppress them—they experience them, learn from them, and move on. Because they accept real-world limits and constraints, they set goals that they can actually attain and are thus able to experience, appreciate, and enjoy success.
Rejects painful emotions
Accepts painful emotions
In essence, Perfectionists reject everything that deviates from their flawless, faultless ideal vision, and as a result they suffer whenever they do not meet their own unrealistic standards. Optimalists accept, and make the best of, everything that life has to offer.
Are there particular areas in your life where you tend to be an Optimalist? Are there areas in which you are more of a Perfectionist?
The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1, I lay out the theory of perfectionism, developing the ideas that I introduced above. Chapter 1 deals with the importance of accepting failure and the idea that we need to learn to fail or else we will fail to learn. Chapter 2 deals with accepting emotions and develops the idea that we need to give ourselves permission to be human. Chapter 3 is about accepting success, about the importance of setting ambitious yet realistic goals and then appreciating our success in achieving them. The final chapter of this part of the book is about accepting reality, which is the basis for countering perfectionist tendencies.
In the second part of the book, I apply ideas from the first part to specific areas. Chapter 5 discusses what teachers and parents can do to help children attain both happiness and success. Chapter 6 takes perfectionism and optimalism to the workplace, showing the benefits of being an Optimalist. In Chapter 7, I argue that attaining true love entails giving up unrealistic notions of perfect love.
The third and final part of the book contains a series of short meditations, each on a different aspect of perfectionism. The first meditation explores why it is often so difficult to change our attitudes and behaviors, specifically when it comes to our perfectionist tendencies. The second meditation introduces a cognitive therapeutic technique that can be used to deal with perfectionism. In the third meditation, I offer some advice on giving advice to others. The fourth meditation looks at the proper place of psychiatric medication in dealing with psychological disease. The fifth meditation explores the role of suffering in our lives. The sixth meditation underscores the importance of self-love, and the seventh meditation explores how perfectionism taints our treatment of others. The pro-aging movement—as opposed to the anti-aging movement—is the subject of the eighth meditation. The ninth meditation discusses the “great deception” and the price people pay for hiding their emotions. The final meditation is on the limits of knowing and our acceptance of not knowing.
Of all the topics that I write about or teach, the subject of perfectionism is closest to my heart and mind because I have had to face my own destructive perfectionist tendencies. Given that this has always been such a personally meaningful topic to me, it came as no surprise that my students often remarked that the lectures on perfectionism were the most meaningful ones to them too. As Carl Rogers once wrote, “What is most personal is most general.”6
My hope is that this book is as meaningful to you as writing it has been to me and as the topic has been for my students. Throughout the book, I share many personal anecdotes as well as stories about other people; I hope they will bring to life the rigorous research and the scientific evidence that form the foundation of this book.