It's commonly said that nobody's perfect, and that’s a pretty extreme statement. Perfection does exist, doesn’t it? One might make the case that evenly divisible numbers, circles, and squares qualify. 0. A straight line. But what about a gnarled tree? Is it perfect, or only a noble redwood? A dilapidated barn? A one-eyed cat?
Your stance may be that there can be perfection in flaws, or even that every object is perfect in its own way as it exists right now. Extending the same courtesy to mankind, you arrive at a seeming paradox. Is nobody perfect, or are you perfect just as you are?
Now, I admit, I’m getting technical. We all know that these clichés aren’t paradoxical at all in their intent. They are well-intentioned and functionally equivalent, in that they give you permission to take it easier on yourself, by acknowledging diversity and subjectivity.
One person’s flaw might be another’s eccentricity. A perfect circle is a very imperfect square, and even a two-eyed cat makes for a horrible dog. Some of our most revered icons of wisdom, generosity, and love—the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa, say—may be thought highly imperfect by one who values the indulgence of a broad range of human urges over temperance. It's important for each of us to embrace our uniqueness.
When self-acceptance backfires . . .
But while self-acceptance is vital to your well-being, it can also lead to a sense of complacency or self-righteousness: that there is either no sense in trying to change, or changing isn’t worth the effort, or you shouldn't have to change.
I recently met someone who volunteered that he refuses to buy into "the culture of self-improvement" because "I am who I am," despite his description of serious problems with anger moments before. I have to wonder whether the targets of his anger would agree that self-improvement wouldn't be helpful for him.
Self-compassion can be used to rationalize giving yourself a free pass on your uglier character traits that keep you and others suffering.
. . . and so does self-improvement
However, the other extreme (as Lexus puts it in their car commercials, "the relentless pursuit of perfection") has its own problems.
You may make consistent effort to change, but strangely, never end up feeling better about yourself . . . because you are cultivating the belief that you are not good enough, and never will be.
This is what happens when you adopt someone else's standard of excellence,* rather than having your standard emerge from your own investigation of what is keeping you, in your own life and circumstances, from feeling intrinsically happy and fulfilled. Both extremes are ways of avoiding effort or discomfort in some way and, not surprisingly, they ultimately yield more discomfort.
So, where is the middle ground in self-improvement? Zen master Shunryu Suzuki provided perhaps the wisest answer: “Each of you is perfect the way you are . . . and you could use a little improvement.”
Now we're getting somewhere: a concept of perfection that acknowledges the gray areas. But still, how are you supposed to work with this answer in your life? How do you know when to keep pushing and when to stop?
Finding a happy, perfect, medium
Perfection is the alignment of three things: your intention, your action, and your core self. Often, your internal experience can be the best guide.** If you feel regret after yelling at your spouse, that's because there is a part of you that knows better. It is in tune with your true nature, and indeed, your evolution-based desire for cooperation with others. (Our physiological responses to stress, arguments, and social connection bear out this desire.)
So, you've made a mistake. That will happen. But afterward, do you allow your perfect self to emerge? Do you investigate your behavior, dig beneath your anger for its source, apologize to your spouse so that you can both feel better, and resolve to do better next time? Or do you shrug your shoulders?
On the other hand, if you find yourself consistently feeling in the right or proclaiming that you're fine just the way you are, then you need to ask if you're allowing hubris or laziness to trap your core self inside. Be brave enough to ask yourself if your actions are saving anything but your own skin, at the expense of your bones.
Maybe there is never a time to stop your self-improvement efforts but, instead, a time to pause and take a metaphorical breath. That time is not when you've convinced yourself that you’re perfect as is, which conveniently excuses you from making the effort necessary to be a better person.
Nor is it when you're as good as someone else, or when you are finally the best you can ever be (because that time will never come).
The time to pause is when you've exerted effort in the right direction, toward the difficult thing—the thing that will lead to a rich and fulfilling life in the long run because it doesn't come easily—and have arrived at a result or product that you can be proud of, at least for now.
If nothing else, you can enjoy the satisfaction of letting your innate perfection shine through just a bit more, and it doesn't matter that there is still more to uncover. There will always be more work to do, so there's no sense in feeling bad about pausing. You'll continue, or tackle something else, tomorrow and feel good again.
You'll always have room for improvement, and right now you're as perfect as you'll ever be—but only so long as you’re acting from the part of you that knows best.
* Perhaps one that you have unwittingly internalized from your upbringing or sociocultural influences.
** Not always, because negative feelings, such as guilt or shame, can also result from a variety of external influences, like your conditioning as a child, abuse, or other trauma. Those kinds of feelings aren’t necessarily reliable indicators of what your core self is looking for.