Do you find yourself procrastinating to start your projects because you worry about how they will turn out? Do you find yourself when you’re in an audience that is asked a question you silently shout the answer in your head because you’re too afraid to say aloud something that would be perceived as wrong? Do you set unrealistic goals for yourself and then beat yourself up if you can’t reach them? Are you quick to criticize others, yet make excuses for yourself why you make mistakes? Do you take constructive criticism defensively? Are you disappointed by and/or fear failure?
Paris Perfectionist answered yes to all these questions. Paris is a clothing designer for a modeling company. She takes very great pride in her work. In fact, her great attention to detail provides for excellent production. However, there are unseen costs to her well-being and to the well-being of those around her.
The Struggle for Perfection
“Paris, what do you think about this local fashion show, should we help with this production?” Paris’ boss asked.
“Ummm…” Paris searched for the words she felt her boss wanted to hear. Paris wanted to live up to the expectations of her boss. “I think it would be great, let’s do it!” Paris said with a plastered smile, knowing full well the stress she was going to be up against in the following weeks in her pursuit to put on a perfect performance. Paris never liked to make mistakes. In fact, she feared perceived failure more than anything.
Paris began to dream up elaborate designs and envisioned a magnificent and what we would consider to be “over-the-top” plan. As she despairingly consulted with her friend about the magnitude of the job, her friend suggested she contract some other designers to help her.
“But then it will be their show, not mine!” Paris whined. She wanted all the credit for the work. Feeling her friend to be downplaying her abilities and talent by such a suggestion, she defensively argued why she didn’t need to ask for anyone’s help. “If I can’t do it perfectly by myself, why even bother!” Paris retorted as she proceeded to slam the door shut behind her.
You see, perfectionists base their self-worth on external achievement—often with this type of all-or-nothing mentality, i.e. “If I can’t do it perfectly, why even bother?” In other words, perfectionists feel they have no value in life unless they are perceived as materially successful. And to admit needing help would be to admit failure to a perfectionist. Paris feels it is what she can personally achieve that matters rather than working together as a team with others to create a sense of harmony with a larger group. Paris is actually motivated by self-doubt and a fear of looking less than perfect, rather than by a sense of duty to work for a higher purpose. Paris thirsts to enjoy the recognition of her work—she wants prestige.
As Paris was walking home she thought over what her friend had advised. “She must think I’m not good enough, I need to work harder!” Paris demanded of herself. To have aspirations is good, but she was solely on a quest to prove her superiority to others. As she continued up the stairs to her apartment, her upper lip cringed as she saw her next door neighbors talking and laughing with one another. “How could he be interested in someone like that?” Paris sneered. She was always quick to criticize others due to a lack of inner fulfillment. Perfectionists easily point out the faults in others in order to feel better about their own shortcomings. Paris suffered from low self-esteem so she tended to gossip quite frequently. People who actually have self-confidence speak of their ideals and values in life, not of the faults of others.
Several days later, Paris had only slept a handful of hours attempting to organize everything just perfectly and she now found herself procrastinating. She was distraught and exhausted. She had no real enthusiasm to continue on as the deadline grew closer. Paris had utterly isolated herself from everyone around her due to her need for perfection, and now with no one around to help, she began incessantly worrying about the outcome of her performance. “I have a reputation to uphold; what will people think if I miss my deadline?” she ruminated.
The next day at work Paris’ boss asked her how everything was coming along. Some of her other co-workers happened to be close by so instead of honestly explaining the situation, her eyes darted back and forth and she managed to blurt out, “Uh, everything is going perfect, just great!”
It was always the same pattern for poor miss perfectionist, time after time. The desire for perfection, unrealistic and over-the-top goals, the self-recrimination, frustration, hostility and resentment towards others, the isolation, and the lies to uphold an artificial image left Paris feeling utterly miserable! Paris made so many excuses for herself about why she wasn’t absolutely perfect: “I should have been more focused”, “there’s not enough time in a day”, “I’m not smart or talented enough”, et cetera.
The Sandcastles Come Crashing Down
The real enemy to Paris’ happiness and self-satisfaction are not her inabilities or “failures,” but the fundamental misconception she maintains about whom she is and what determines happiness.
Krishna, in the Bhagavad-gita, describes the physical body as merely a vehicle for the real self—the eternal soul—which is of a superior, unchanging nature. Real happiness can only be found on the level of the soul. Any amount of material success, honor, or praise that Paris could seemingly take pleasure in can last for a short time only. Why? Because failure, mistakes, and disapproval are an inherent part of life—in fact, we learn and develop character from them. Thus, to base our value as individuals on the material perfection of our life is like trying to build our self-worth on a foundation of sand.
Krishna explains that in order to achieve genuine, steady happiness during our everyday activities, we must perform the yoga of work—karma yoga. Karma is ordinary material work, but when done in yoga, or linked up to the Truth of one’s spiritual essence, then one’s work becomes perfect no matter whether materially good or bad results come about. Therefore, karma yoga occurs when we perform our work out of duty, because it ought to be done and without attachment to success or failure. Instead, work is performed with a higher spiritual vision in mind. Real perfection in life is to find inner, spiritual fulfillment rather than external perfection.
Those who are properly executing karma yoga possess equanimity while performing their everyday duties. In other words, they neither rejoice upon achieving something pleasant nor lament upon obtaining something unpleasant. Such persons are truly happy because they are never bewildered by the dualities of life. However, when we work for the results of our activities, as Paris did, then we are prone to much misery. If we work for results such as money, fame, adoration, or superiority and do not get them to the degree that we desire, then we suffer much anxiety and disappointment. Conversely, if we do get them, then we become attached and fear their loss. On either side there is great stress.
As a result of spiritual cultivation, a natural alleviation of these commonplace miseries occur. Thus, karma-yoga is an essential part in combating the plague of perfectionism and in achieving equanimity of mind.