Our culture elevates strong, sexy, vibrant, and plastic over weak, average, weary, and wrinkled. Men and women, many of whom we watch on our favorite television programs or see in the movies, spend billions of dollars a year on cosmetic surgeries to get perfect bodies.
We listen to music that has been so produced and polished that it is impossible to perform some songs live, which is why so many well-known artists get caught lip-syncing their way through “live” performances.
With modern technology we can screen for genetic illnesses, choose a male or female embryo, and identify the healthiest embryo in the lot—all to obtain the “perfect child”?
We are immersed in a culture that is addicted to perfection, and that pursuit can have devastating and grave consequences. Ted Steinberg, a well-known historian, points out the negative consequences of what would seem like a benign addiction to the perfect lawn:
“Using a gas-powered leaf blower for half an hour creates as many polluting hydrocarbon emissions as driving a car seventy-seven hundred miles at a speed of thirty miles per hour. Approximately seven million birds die each year because of lawn-care pesticides. In the process of refueling their lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other garden equipment, Americans spill about seventeen million gallons of gasoline every summer, or about 50 percent more oil than marred the Alaskan coast during the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster.”
Environmental disasters, eating disorders, cosmetic surgeries, addictions, and an aversion to natural human emotions, such as sadness and fear, are some of the many consequences that have their roots in a perfectionistic culture. This clinging to the ideal notion of perfection keeps people from entering into their own and other people’s painful stories.
Hidden within the word perfectionism, at least phonetically, is the word shun, which is a constant reminder of the unfortunate consequence of trying to be perfect. I like to think of perfectionism as perfect-shun-ism.
When we shun somebody, we keep away from, hide from, or avoid that person. We, who are affected by Perfect(shun)ism tend to avoid or shun anything that appears to be broken, incomplete, raw, and imperfect. Perfectshunism invariably keeps us from listening to the brokenness within ourselves and others, and it keeps others from engaging with and listening to us. It stops us from knowing each other and ourselves, intimately.
Perfect(shun)ism causes us to fear the raw, unrefined inner experience and to shun what our souls are really crying out for. So we mask our imperfect pain with excessive activity, noise, programs, addictions, and the like. We may fear the brokenness of others as well. If we run away from our own pain, shame, and brokenness, we will most likely run away from broken people who come to us in their time of need and desperation.
Perfect(shun)ism also causes us to look like something we are not, which puts a barrier between who we really are and other people. Since we will never be perfect, our attempts at showing people our perfection hides our inner selves from them. People then see and experience our personas, not the real us. If we relate to people and God as we think we should (like an actor), then we keep others from listening and encountering the real us.
Be kind toward yourself. Stop hiding. Perfect(shun)ism is exhausting and it is definitely overrated. Extend compassion toward yourself. Find someone you can be your beautifully broken self with. Allow God to love you as you are and not how you think you should be.
(Adapted from my book Season of Heartbreak: Healing for the Heart, Brain, and Soul)