Letting Go of Perfection
In the film, Black Swan, the ballet director challenged Nina, the featured dancer played by Natalie Portman, by stating, “I never see you lose your self.” He further explained, “Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience.”
Jungian author Marion Woodman provides one explanation for the need for perfection. She states that children become “superadjusted to reality,” which manifests as being the good girl or boy, being charming and perfecting their performances. As much as this coping mechanism or adaptation fulfilled the needs of the parents (who, as Woodman suggested, “were not able to emotionally support the child”), the child paid a cost: parts of him or her self were lost or overly controlled.
In the book, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann explains another reason for the need for perfection. He points to an "old ethic," originating from Judeo-Christian and other sources, which is based on the absolute value of good and is achieved by "the elimination of those qualities which are incompatible with this perfection."
Both authors’ explanations involve a denial of negative aspects of the self, which is accomplished by either conscious suppression, as in self-discipline and sacrifice, or by unconscious repression. Regardless, a splitting of the psyche occurs, with the ego deemed as absolute good or perfect and shadow as bad or imperfect. A personal wounding occurs in which genuine feelings and attributes of our selves are disowned, and we are thus left incomplete
Being perfect, having control, being dutiful and constantly checking ourselves takes energy. Eventually, usually during midlife, the soul becomes weary of this performance. This weariness appears as a lack of energy or libido, sadness and anger, and through the introduction of chaos into our lives. After decades of willpower, control and striving for perfection, the compensatory nature of the psyche brings the opposite. The task now becomes the “new ethic”—acknowledging, welcoming and integrating the once deemed ‘bad’ qualities into our consciousness. This integration of shadow material is part of the individuation process, the purpose of which, as Carl Jung explained, “is not perfection but completeness, and even that is well beyond the reach of most mortals.”
Jung further stated that “one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” The integration of our darkness is vital for our well-being. We are both good and evil, both heaven and hell, and both godly and satanic. A helpful mindset to hold as we wrestle with our imperfections is informed by Jung’s thought that “imperfectum carries within it the seeds of its own improvement.” When we become aware and take ownership of our imperfections, we can enter into a more compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. Native American beadwork and Persian rugs are made with one intentional flaw to show that the artist was only human. The spirit bead, or the ‘mistake’ bead, acts as a gate through which the Great Spirit, or God, can enter the art. Although having caught the only perfect game in World Series history, baseball catcher Yogi Berra wisely acknowledged, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Perhaps it is time in your life to give up the need for the perfect game and accept some errors, wild pitches and runners-on-base.
1. What is your relationship with perfection? How important was ‘being perfect’ in your childhood household? To what degree and in what areas was perfection expected?
2. How do you truly feel about your less-than-desirable tendencies or aspects such as greed, addiction or a physical feature? What messages tend to play in your mind about these traits? You were not born with these views. Where and from whom did you learn these?
3. When doing a task, challenge yourself to make an intention flaw. Note your feelings and thoughts as you resist making corrections or as you look at the ‘mistake.’
4. How do you ‘check’ yourself during the day? Notice times when you are looking into mirrors, adjusting clothing or hair and picking on or detailing yourself, others or your surroundings. What are your thoughts and feelings during these moments?
5. Recall times when you have let go of the need for perfection or control. What fears did you have to overcome while doing this? What was the outcome of the situation when you did let go?