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The Pursuit of Perfect as the Basis for Blaming

Perfectionists spend a great deal of time enmeshed in discontent.

Tal Ben-Shahar is an expert on happiness. He teaches happiness at Harvard and has written some internationally successful books on the subject. Dr. Ben-Shahar has identified what he believes to be the major obstacle to achieving happiness; the aspiration to a life that is not just happier, but perfect.

I agree with Dr. Ben-Shahar and add that it is also our continual and habitual pursuit of perfect which is one of the leading causes of blaming. How does this happen?

We have an innate belief in Plato's Forms (even if we don't remember what these are). Essentially, Plato argued that non-material abstract forms (or ideas) and not the material world (known to us through sensations) possess the most fundamental kind of reality. There is a Form for every object or quality in reality: Forms of cats, human beings, colors, goodness and even love. These Forms are the essences of various objects - the purest of all things. There is a table or there is the Form of Table that has all of the perfect qualities of being a Table. There is love and there is the Form of Love that contains all of the perfect qualities of Love. These are the gold standards by which we judge all tables and all of our loving relationships. Since we can never really experience these perfect Forms, we are subjected to live with imperfection.

Every time we judge or compare what is real to a fictitious ideal, always leads to unhappiness. Further, the Perfectionist is convinced that they should be able to attain these fictitious ideals. In actively pursuing perfect and believing that the ideal situation is attainable, we continue to make comparisons to what we currently have, who we are and what we are experiencing. Whenever we compare, we are fulfilling two negative processes. 1) We are being mindless; not focusing or being actively aware of or appreciating the present. 2) We are never going to be as happy with what we have when we compare it to some mental idea of what is perfect. We believe this attainment is not only possible, but we often feel entitled. Thus, if we don't achieve, attain or experience the best, if not the perfect, then obviously someone or something is to blame. As I described in The Blame Game when we set up an unattainable gold standard for how things and people should function and they don't rise up to this level of our expectations, responsibility needs to be given out and blame needs to be assigned.

As Dr. Ben-Shahar has assessed, the pursuit of perfect is the antagonist of happy. The only thing Perfect about establishing an unattainable and unachievable goal is that we have set up a perfect excuse for failure, dissatisfaction and blaming. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben Shahar delineates an important difference between what he has termed Perfectionists and Optimalists. Essentially, Optimalism (previously called positive perfectionism) is healthy and adaptive.

Perfectionists and Optimalists both have high standards. However Optimalists base their perspectives on reality. They are more willing to accept failure, accept emotional discomfort and recognize success. Optimalists actually view failures as part of the journey and opportunities for improvement. In this way, as mindful Harvard psychologist professor, Ellen Langer has taught and professed in several books on mindfulness, apparent mistakes and failures are often positive steps on a successful journey. In contrast, Perfectionism (previously called negative perfectionism) is unhealthy and maladaptive. Perfectionists replace reality with a fantasy world in which there is no failure and the highest standards for success are reasonable.

As Ben-Shahar explains, their rejection of failure and painful emotions leads to anxiety and even more pain. As they reject real-world limits and set unattainable goals, this is a perfect set up for blaming. With this in mind, the Pessimist is more likely to blame others for their failures and lack of success while the Optimalist, being far less likely to be dissatisfied, is more likely to thank others for apparent failures. This doesn't imply that Optimalists don't care about success or will condone and accept all bad behaviors. Optimalists also have high expectations and aspirations, yet they view the journey and all that may happen along the journey, as important learning and personal growth experiences.

The Optimalist, being more mindful is focused on the process and journey more than outcome. To appear flawless, it is important that the Perfectionist deflect criticism and spend energy convincing others that any other view is incorrect. Again, this defensive behavior leads to extensive responsibility shifting and blaming. The Optimalist, on the other hand, while not enjoying criticism, is more open to suggestions and views them as a means to self-improvement; thus eliminating many blaming opportunities. While both Perfectionists and Optimalists often view themselves as optimistic,

Perfectionists spend a great deal of time enmeshed in negativity, discontent, and blaming. Optimalists are more likely to think about making lemonade; converting apparent negatives into productive positives. They seek to find the benefit from all challenges and situations. They actively practice forgiveness and display gratitude. They take personal responsibility and feel like they have more control over their lives. They will look for opportunities for improvement where they exist and spend their time on accomplishing positive and productive changes rather than wasting their energy on nonproductive blaming.

Our constitution guarantees our right to the pursuit of happiness. This quest for happiness can easily be derailed when we believe that there is any relation between happiness or success or satisfaction and perfection. This unattainable goal will surely lead to blaming, inhibiting personal growth and poor relationships. Replacing the pursuit of perfection with the pursuit of Optimalism changes our focus to positive and productive processes, and allows us to stop blaming and take responsibility for our actions.