Archive for November, 2007

Why we should not obsess over perfection

An obsession with perfection can destroy our lives. It leaves us unable to accept our own mistakes, unable to accept other people’s mistakes, and unable to accept those unfortunate events that happen in life. Richard Carlson discusses “making peace with imperfection” in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. This is extremely useful advice to prevent us from amplifying a small mistake. There is a common and vicious cycle in life: It begins when we do or say something wrong, and then instead of simply acknowledging the mistake and moving on, we enter a state of excessive guilt and despair. We berate ourselves at length for having failed yet again. Alternatively, we may refuse to acknowledge that we even made a mistake, thus entering a state of denial and defensiveness, perhaps even blaming someone else. Neither of these states are useful for correcting the mistake, nor will they stop it from happening again. Like gambling to recover our previous losses, we only make our situation worse.

The fact is, we will make mistakes, and often we will make the same mistakes time and time again. This is OK! We must be patient with ourselves. We must calmly see what led us to make the mistake, and simply try to avoid it in the future. It does not matter how many times we repeat this process.

Making peace with imperfection extends to others as well. We must not expect those around us to be perfect, particularly our close friends or partners. To expect perfection from others is unreasonable, particularly given our own lack of perfection. Furthermore, life is imperfect. Things will go wrong. It may rain on our picnic. We may get sick on vacation. We must learn to accept such things. The world is imperfect, we are imperfect, but that does not mean that all is lost, and it need not stop us from being happy.

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Learning to understand people

I think that understanding others is really not so difficult. The problem is that most of us do not really try. In fact, often we deliberately try not to understand. When we fight with someone, we want to believe that we are in the right, and the easiest way to do this is by not seeing their point of view. Although this strategy may protect our self-esteem in the short-term, it does nothing to resolve the conflict. Furthermore, by pretending not to understand the other person’s point of view, we are lying to ourselves. This actually ends up harming our self-esteem in the long run.

Simply wanting to understand someone is 90% of the battle. When we make a genuine effort to do so, it is quite easy. However, it does take practice to properly hone our skills. We need to get good at putting ourselves in someone’s shoes and trying to imagine what they’re feeling. It is important that we do not imagine what they ought to be feeling, or what we would be feeling in their situation. Instead, based on what we know of the person, we need to think very carefully of what they will be feeling. Think through all of the possibilities and ask which is most consistent with their behaviour, and which is most consistent with what we know about that person. It is simple, but few people do it.

Learning to understand people makes a big difference to our lives. We become more considerate and forge closer relationships. Furthermore, we are less liable to get hurt, because we can see past people’s behaviour and understand why they do the things they do. Therefore, we should devote a lot of attention to achieving this goal, and if we ever find ourselves sabotaging it by lying to ourselves and pretending not to see, we should be immediately alerted. We should recognize that any short-term gain in self-esteem achieved by this strategy will be far overwhelmed by the suffering that we cause, the ongoing conflict in our life, and the shame that results from lying to ourselves.

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