why perfection “rapes the soul”

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“Move into yourself. Move into your human unsuccess. Perfection rapes the soul.” — Marion Woodman

“Artists aren’t afraid to be imperfect,” pointed out Jonathan Fields in a recent blog post.

Fields used the example of a student in yoga, a beginner who came to the front of an intermediate class. She tossed down her mat like a gauntlet. She sweated and struggled and contorted herself in full view of everyone. It probably hurt to watch. But she came again the next day. And the next. Because she didn’t care about looking like an idiot, because she knew how to keep showing up, she made rapid progress. Today she’s a yoga teacher.

This example hit home with me because I am getting much more serious about my own yoga practice, and I can tell you that I do not take a spot in the front of the class. I’m in the back, baby. I do take classes that are at my ragged edge, because I like to watch the bendy people. But I struggle with my self-consciousness when my poses aren’t perfect, when I make stupid mistakes, when I drip sweat like a mofo. (That old saying about how men sweat, women perspire? Nuh-uh. I sweat.) The yoga teacher cocks his head at me and asks, “Are you all right?”

I hate that.

After reading Jonathan’s post, I made the connection between my self-conscious struggle in yoga and my equally self-conscious struggle to finish the current draft of my novel. The freaking draft isn’t perfect and oh, woe! So cry for me, Argentina.

Perfection is a bitch. And severely overrated.

Don’t get me wrong. It has its place. Bridge-building. Rocketry. Neurosurgery. Drycleaning.

But we screw ourselves when we hold ourselves to some standard of quote-unquote perfection in what is essentially an ongoing process: like yoga, like art, like life. The way to achieve excellence in anything is to focus on the moment-to-moment experience of it, to learn how to find pleasure in the actual learning of the thing — the slow deep attainment of mastery — of true knowing — instead of trying to rush ahead to the final product because of some image in our heads of what it will look like to others and how sexy it will make us.

We want perfection and we want it now.

We don’t want the tedium of repeating things we’re still too uncomfortable with to actually enjoy yet, and we don’t want to be the sweat-dripping loser at the back of the class who can’t keep her balance in Warrior 3. (Ahem.)

So we get caught up in the story going on inside our heads (I’m a loser, this is stupid, I’m no good at it, what’s for dinner, when is this class going to end, that guy with the tattoo is kind of hot, why is she wearing such an unflattering outfit) that disconnects us from the present moment and all the richness of learning, of direct contact with the world outside our heads, the moment always offers.

And when we disconnect, when we stop paying attention, sooner or later we forget why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. We get discouraged. We quit.

Thing is, we learn and grow through the very fact, the awkward reality, of imperfection. With each mistake the brain is forced to stop, go over what went wrong, compare it to the model and make the adjustments. The brain must slow down and pay deep attention: thus, it learns. (This is what ‘deliberate practice’ is all about.)

On an intellectual level we know that, and yet…

Being imperfect – especially in public – makes us so freaking vulnerable.

We feel so threatened and shamed by our own imperfection that we banish it to the shadows. As we grow up, we learn to craft our persona according to outside expectations: we keep the elements of ourselves that bring love, attention and pleasure, while disowning those that cause us pain.

Perfection is about being safe, secure and controlled.

Imperfection is about being messy, flawed, and out of control.

If perfection is what is good, and rewarded, then imperfection is bad and invites scorn and punishment.

And yet it’s the willingness to be imperfect that contains the treasure chest of our own creativity.

“Out of perfection,” writes Joseph Campbell, “nothing can be made.”

“The earth must be broken
to bring forth life.

If the seed does not die,
there is no plant.

Bread results
from the death of wheat.

Life lives on lives.

Our own life
lives on the acts
of other people.

If you are lifeworthy,
you can take it.”

Perfection is finished, stagnant, and still. It has nowhere to go. Process is motion, learning and life. And every process involves breaking something up: sometimes even taking what seemed perfect and stripping it to find the new, better form. Destruction before creation.

William Chen calls this investment in loss; giving yourself over to the learning process.

Josh Waitzkin, a chess champion and Tai Chi Push Hands champion, writes in his book THE ART OF LEARNING

“Periodically, I have had to take apart my game and go through a rough patch. In all disciplines, there are times when a performer is ready for action, and times when he or she is soft, in flux, broken-down or in a period of growth. Learners in this phase are inevitably vulnerable. It is important to have perspective on this and allow yourself protected periods for growth. [For example a} gifted boxer with a fabulous right and no left will get beat up while he tries to learn the jab…”

It’s a battle, I think, between ego and what I think of as soul. The ego wants to be the best. The soul wants to get better.

Being the best depends on who else is in the room; you can be the very big fish in a very small pond.

Getting better is about humbling yourself, stepping outside your concern for your image and opening yourself up to learn from your superiors…even when you have to actively seek those people out.

The ego only plays when it knows that it can win.

The soul may lose at times, but it plays with heart. And as the heart gets bigger through use and practice, so does the game.

In her book SPIRITUAL DIVORCE, Debbie Ford describes a children’s story about a crab named Grasper, who discovers one day that he has outgrown his shell.

“…Grasper comes face to face with a giant crab….The crab explains to Grasper that the same thing will happen to him if he continues to grow and molt. But Grasper can’t believe this explanation because all the crabs he knows are as small as himself. The giant crab explains to Grasper that a crab grows only as large as the world he lives in, and as big as the heart inside him. He says, ‘You must have a big heart to live in a big world.’”

Your ego has hardened around you. It keeps you in your comfort zone. It keeps you smaller than you want to be. Splitting open that shell — putting ourselves in new situations that make us feel vulnerable — can be painful. But pain, as Debbie Ford points out, “is a spiritual wake-up call showing you that there are oceans you have not yet explored. Step beyond the world you know…Go to places you have deemed off limits.”

I began this post with a quote about artists, and I’ll end with another one by Seth Godin defining who and what an artist is

(I love this quote):

“Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.

What makes someone an artist? I don’t think it has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren’t artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.

An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.

That’s why Bob Dylan is an artist, but an anonymous corporate hack who dreams up Pop 40 hits on the other side of the glass is merely a marketer. That’s why Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, is an artist, while a boiler room of telemarketers is simply a scam.

Tom Peters, corporate gadfly and writer, is an artist, even though his readers are businesspeople. He’s an artist because he takes a stand, he takes the work personally, and he doesn’t care if someone disagrees. His art is part of him, and he feels compelled to share it with you because it’s important, not because he expects you to pay him for it.

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”

Artists aren’t afraid to be imperfect. They’re not afraid to work and live with heart, to be vulnerable, to get open, to fuck up at times, to outgrow shell after shell. The bigger they grow, the more impact they have, and they accept that; they’re willing not to play small. They put themselves out there.

Because there’s a big world out there, and it’s waiting.

You are lifeworthy. You can take it.

Dec 14, 2012
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14 comments · Add Yours

I don’t know if I consider my story-telling an art, but have decided that the important thing is to share … even if it isn’t “perfect”. Keep telling myself that’s what revising of the draft is for.

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I love this post more than words can explain. I struggle with anxiety and have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder but have elements of obsessive compulsive personality disorder minus the personality disorder. Words don’t describe the severity of my perfectionism. With all that said, your post resonates so deeply with me. I struggle to go to school, work, and at one point wanted to be hospitalized but never was because my anxiety kept me from gong about seeing how to. Now, I’m doing better but the anxiety still hurts. I love science but I have a need for the creative, writing and acting. I can’t tell you how much it hurts to not be able to write because my brain never shuts off the side that is perfectionist. Or to not reach my full potential in school because my perfectionism keeps me from functioning. You have a knack for highlighting the human experience. Thank you. :)

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Wow, you hit home with this one. As a perfectionist who’s often frozen because I know nothing I will ever do will be “good enough” or perfect, I spend a lot of time fighting myself. Since I found your writing last year, I’ve evolved from an aspiring novelist to a freelance writer, but you’ve given me hope that there is an artist inside me, an artist that can produce beauty for others. Thank you. So. Much.

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This post really hit home. I’m one of those people who grew up labeling myself a perfectionist. I took pride in overachieving. I got awards. I got praise. Never mind that I only “overachieved” in the stuff that came easiest to me. I conveniently avoided the stuff that was hard (the stuff I desperately wanted—needed—to pursue for my personal and creative growth). It’s taken me years and years to break out of that cage to the point where I can work through the pain of being imperfect and come out the other side feeling fulfilled. Because I can feel myself growing. Perfectionism, by contrast, is so small. So hollow.

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What a great post! Perfectionists are creepy. I especially love the excerpt: “The giant crab explains to Grasper that a crab grows only as large as the world he lives in, and as big as the heart inside him.” Beautiful!

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I also enjoy taking the opposite view on perfection… that the idea of perfection is wrong. We are perfection.. that the universe,.our beings, everything is already “perfect”, and the concept of striving to improve on that perfection is the fault (imperfection) of our minds. Perfection is subjective and I can define it as I please, so this struggle, learning, growth, accomplishment, failures – is the perfect form of what I am and who I want to be…

I suppose it is partly about taking control and ownership of my personal existence as well, and the meaning and purpose I attribute to it. I don’t need to alter my idea of perfection into what others “believe” perfection is or should be. Maybe it is just how I dealt with the issue you focus on here, and perhaps it makes our relationship to the ideas of perfection less clear, but there is some merit in releasing our attachment from the idea that there is anything less “perfect” than the here and now, present of our existence.

However, I also notice how motivated I am by future projections of “ideal”/”perfect” conceptions of the “ego”/self/reality.. and how the idea or dream of what an accomplishment or act means, not just to myself but to others, provides some energy and strength to accomplish things that I wouldn’t otherwise. I strive for that ideal, but it can never be reached nor realized, which can be crushing in itself. Some element of idealism, dreaming, and foolish optimism to challenge ourselves towards things is beneficial, even fully recognizing that it can never be achieved. But I wonder how much of this merely reflects the way my own mind works, vacillating between idealistic dreams and pragmatic realism.

At least the more I learn about myself the closer I feel to a heightened peace and sense of purpose, providing fulfillment and passion in whatever activity I’m involved in.

That is my path to “perfection” at least.

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What awesome comments, thank you. Not to brag or anything, but I swear that this blog has some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, articulate readers on the Internet. :)

I believe in “idealism, dreaming + foolish optimism” to spur us on to mastery + personal greatness, don’t get me wrong. Maybe it’s about learning to see perfection in the process itself — that we are attaining it every moment we work toward our goals/dreams — or not even attaining it, but expressing it through the further unfolding of who we truly are.

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I’m perfectly imperfect. And I love this essay. Thanks.

And, by the way, storytelling is very much an art and it can touch people deeply.

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@mandy @Kay Theodoratus Stories rule the world. :)

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As with everything you’ve written that I’ve read so far, I love this post – and synchronicity being what it is, it came at a perfect time. My partner and I were just talking last night about what makes an artist, and what it means to create – how many forms that can take. So the Seth Godin quote was particularly meaningful to me. I’m currently working on writing my own story (literally! because of course, we are all always writing our own stories metaphorically!) and finding it overwhelming and illuminating and perfect and imperfect and wonderful and… !
I appreciate your blog so much for the inspiration it gives me to keep writing. Thanks.

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Just wanted to tell you this is the best thing I’ve read all week. As I was reading your descriptions of struggling with Yoga, I was remembering my first days of surfing. I showed up at the beach every single day with a giant costco surfboard (those things are basically a label that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing). By the end of 6 months I could rip on that thing, and now I’m riding a shortboard. I realize that’s probably all gibberish to somebody who doesn’t surf. The point is that it took a lot of wipeouts, setbacks, and more to get the point of actually being able to surf. Really loved this post.

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Justine, you are an inspiring, talented writer that I feel so blessed to have found! I cannot stop reading your posts…each time I finish one, I see another title that catches my eye and speaks to my heart. This one in particular spoke to me as an artist and former perfectionist.
My grandmother said to me in a dream a few years ago….”Jennifer, Life is perfectly imperfect!”
A few days later I found Lori Fields at Real Beauty Is….(perfectly imperfect!) Serendipitous. I feel the same about finding your blog, as I have struggled recently with violence against young girls around the world, and teaching my own daughter to find her “voice”…I read your article about Malala, and it reinforced the need to find our voice. All I can say is “thank you” for sharing yourself and your voice with us. Grateful!

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I enjoyed your post. I was caught/am caught in the same things.

Just in case this helps to know, you cannot be good at yoga, or bad at it. You either do it or you don’t do it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t do it, as long as you don’t hurt yourself and you learn to tell when you are and are not doing yoga. It has no goal. There is nowhere to go. Bendiness and looking good doesn’t really have much to do with anything, and absolutely nothing to do with anything if it is someone else’s bendiness or looking good.

It’s nice if your body feels better and works better afterwards but that’s not the point. The point is, as with the writing, just to be yourself as you are right now whatever that is. Whatever it is is not important. If you can do that then you are in a state of yoga. If not then you’re not. And that is the same for a master or a beginner or even people who never heard of yoga and would call it something else. Yoga is out beyond failing and succeeding, like that field Rumi talks about – “there’s a place beyond good and evil…” It’s way past all that. Of course that doesn’t mean that you can’t use it as another perfection stick to beat yourself up with – “Oh my god I’m not doing yoga!! I’m such a failure!”

I taught yoga for years and in my intermediate classes there were always people I could see who were really going for it physically, but nowhere near it in reality even if their alignment was right: their bodies were full of struggle – and I could not persuade them to stop flogging themselves with achievement and etc. I felt like I was presiding over the anti-yoga eventually, like it had become this prison they were stuck in, instead of the opposite. Short of yelling ,”You have to chill the shit out!” I found myself wondering how I’d transmitted all that tension. And I realised it was my own terror of being inadequate that had come over, not with my words, but entirely in spite of them. I apologised and I gave up teaching the class, not because I didn’t know what I was talking about, but because I felt that I was subconsciously sabotaging the entire job.

Perfectionism is another way to beat yourself up, really it’s a way of protecting your vulnerability from having to suffer the shame of failure or the humiliation of public failure. But it can never work out, all it does is help you suffer more. There is no escape from failing if you are going to act at all, it’s just normal, ordinary, everyday stuff. But we are the kind of social species that thrives on status seeking and it is status risky to expose yourself as a failure because others may just reject you and use your failure to make you an outcast and demote you. That’s what the terror is all about. You may even demote and outcast yourself if you feel sufficient shame. On the other hand, if you feel sufficient worth in yourself then you’re nearly bulletproof. You can face your mistakes, make your apologies, laugh at yourself and move along with things.

How do you transition from shameful outcast to immunised by self-worth? The only answer I’ve ever come up with to that is – you must make a leap of faith. Nobody can endorse it (although religions and gurus will try, but if you put yourself in their hands you’ll flop because you just gave your power to someone else UNLESS they are that super rare completely actualised genius who knows how to dish out the right placebo at the right moment, but you know, what are the odds of that?). You become your own benevolent authority – so an authority on you, not on others…just on you.

We do live in a world of status seeking, power hungry, looking-for-the-main-chance opportunists who will eat you alive given half a chance on the one hand, but you also make yourself a person of power and significance when you act authentically and that makes you a worthwhile ally – as your blog and its responses show.

The only thing you can win or lose is…you. Authenticity is an interior sport. I won’t necessarily buy you anything beyond that but you have other tools to get things beyond that. The reverse consequence is that you’ll always feel dissatisfied without it. Perhaps safer, but definitely unsatisfied.

Thanks for such a thought provoking post and sorry for rambling on.

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I searched google for sites containing ‘Brilliant F@#ups’ to pin my own blog entry to and found your piece of art about Perfection which added value to my evening. Thank you.

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