The Perfection Trap

The Perfection Trap: how to find beauty in our flaws

How To Find Beauty In Your Flaws

I was watching day time TV. The world champions of ice skating whizzed around the rink. The magical whirls, the fantastical costumes and above all, the search for the perfect “10”.

Like most competitive sports, only First Place is venerated. Crushing disappointment for everyone else. I saw it in their crumbled faces, dejected shoulders and the commiserative knee squeeze from the coach. Only Second Place!

Why Oh Why?

At the end of the icy flurry, what I wanted to know was: why do we worship perfection? Why is the pursuit of being Number One still so important to us?

And, what would happen if we celebrated the quest, the journey and the process instead? Or the thoughtful gathering of all the small steps and how they come together to form a new story?

Perfect Public Speaker

I am a public speaking coach. Which means I help my clients individually learn how to manage speaking nerves. And I show them how to step up to the front and reveal themselves in a public space with well-crafted words and genuine presence. For some, that could involve giving a speech at a conference, or speaking up and standing their ground in a room full of challengers, or promoting their new book at a business breakfast.

Every person who works with me has a unique problem. We rework their issues into an inspiring Quest. And that Quest takes the bold yet fearful client on the classic Hero’s Journey. They are required to step up and face the inevitable challenges, fighting their internal and external dragons. Just like a good story, they face their fears, test their courage and try something new and scary. Our Hero learns an extraordinary amount about themselves. In the end, my clients do win something but it’s not always what they expect. It’s very exciting… but then, it’s over and they’re on to the next thing. Because now, they can.

Now is a good time to define our topic of the perfection trap, so we will begin with, what it is not.

Definition of Imperfection

“The state of being faulty or incomplete”. Gee, no wonder the fear of being less than perfect sends so many people into years of therapy! Now let’s investigate definitions of “Perfection”.

Definition of Perfection

  • “The action or process of improving something until it is faultless or complete.” Think of those tireless champion ice skaters, desperate for a hot chocolate but focussed on one more Triple Fling.
  • “The condition, state, or quality of being as free as possible from all flaws or defects.”  Think of the predictable sameness of machine mass production.
  • And a non-standard definition, rather Buddhist, is that Perfection is impossible because nothing is ever complete or finished; it’s always in a state of constant change.

According to the last and my favourite definition, Perfection is a temporary state. Why then do we strive for something so ephemeral? I think perfection is boring and an illusionary trap. Without change or growth, stagnation occurs. Give me imperfection any day. At least there is room to move and opportunity to be yourself.

While western society is currently obsessed with winning, being the best, the fastest, the biggest, the greatest, etcetera, other cultures have a different relationship with Perfection. I’d like to talk to you next about a couple of ancient ideas from Japan and the Middle East.

Japanese Art of Kintsugi (kint-sugee)

The Perfection Trap How to find beauty in our flaws

Do you know what this Japanese ceramic pot is an example of?

It was a beloved family pot and it had an accident. Rather than toss it away, they repaired it using the Japanese art of kintsugi, using gold to fill in the cracks and hold it together. Now, the family’s favourite pot wears its history with pride. It has a valued story and place.

Kintsugi is an example of the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, “seeing beauty in the imperfection”. I share this perspective with clients who struggle with the perfection trap. Perhaps I should just invest in a can of gold spray paint.

The Persian Flaw

The Perfection Trap How to find beauty in your flaws

Traditional Persian rugs are intricately handwoven by families who’ve kept the skill alive over generations. With all that practise you would assume they’d be close to perfect. However, the faith of Islam believes that only God is perfect which means carpet makers intentionally place subtle mistakes in their rugs.

Are you rushing off to check the status of your own rug? Never fear, deliberate flaws are difficult to spot and are often placed in the pattern. Interestingly, mistakes add value to a rug. Imperfections prove it is authentically handmade and truly unique.

Weird Robot Face

The Perfection Trap: how to find beauty in our flaws

Everyone feels uncomfortable when confronted with the perfectly mirrored face of a robot or manikin. Our skin crawls because deep down we know no human face has perfect symmetry. One eye may be higher than the other or the teeth slightly crooked.

Humans are hardwired to prefer imperfection in faces; to be flawed. Facial imperfection feels more natural, trustworthy and authentic.

I ponder once again, why on one hand do we obsess with being flawlessly number one and yet yearn for and instinctively trust “authenticity” and “uniqueness” in all things, not just faces? Why is vulnerable and battle scarred more attractive than neat and perfect? Time to check the definition of Authenticity:

Definition of Authenticity

Authenticity is the quality of being genuine and real. Authenticity creates trust. Foundations are built upon it. I’m now briefly going to tell you the story of one of my clients who battled the perfection trap. Simon feared losing credibility and being judged as less than the perfect professional.

Client Story – Simon* Who Broke His Foot

Simon’s topic was sensitive and controversial. He needed to raise awareness in the right way to the right people. He came to see me a couple of months in advance of a conference speaking opportunity. Simon’s main issue was how to embody credibility, awaken compassion and educate status-sensitive senior health professionals.

Two weeks before the big day, Simon broke his foot badly. He assumed his credibility would be lost, limping on stage with a stick, unable to hold his own props and looking less than powerful. He was ready to cancel. I talked him out of it.

This Is How Simon Did It

A stool and table were placed centre stage. Props were hidden in a mysterious big box. Simon walked with dignity and a stick slowly and without apology. He was vulnerable and strong. The audience sucked in their breath and put down their phones. Their interest was palpable. To maximise his physical comfort and magnify his presence, Simon took off his lone shoe, spread his knees wide, leaned forward, lifted his face and opened his palms. This is the SOLER** active listening stance, a universally non-threatening physical posture that engenders trust, openness and an invitation to share.

Before long, Simon’s audience gasped, laughed and cried. They listened beyond his words and I guess you could say, crossed the “blood-brain barrier” to absorb a radical topic and approach. Through necessity, Simon had to adopt a non-standard delivery which ended up beautifully suiting his non-standard topic. His relaxed “we are all in this together” manner brought down formal barriers, allowing something new and different to slip through.

Simon took his standing ovation, sitting down! And he began conversations with policy makers who had power to make change. During a later debrief, Simon realised that “being real was far more effective than trying to be a perfect fit for someone else’s expectations.”  Simon had struggled with the perfection trap his whole life.

Embrace Flaws To Avoid The Perfection Trap

I consulted a psychologist in my twenties. I lived in Sydney and did a lot of contract work. Always moving, never settling. The psychologist kept pieces of broken, pretty glass on the window sill. After some months, I asked why she hadn’t thrown it out. She told me she used it as a visceral reminder that just because something is broken, doesn’t mean it’s no longer beautiful or valuable. In some ways when things break, they show their authentic parts, the myriad of pieces or small steps that make up the whole.

I like to keep this philosophy in mind when I work with my clients. We all strive for authenticity because it’s better than the perfection trap, it’s real. And realness is something we trust and build our lives upon, flaws, diversity and all.

Let’s all invest in bottles of gold paint!

*Naturally I have changed some details and client names to protect privacy. ** S.O.L.E.R. active listening model developed by Gerard Egan.

© 2019 Geraldine Barkworth, Australian Speaking Coach. This article is the opinion of the writer. www.goddessofpublicspeaking.com.au

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