How a deepening appreciation of change and imperfection helped me deal with my own perfectionist tendencies
For so many years I was a perfectionist. I was also a judgemental perfectionist.
Perhaps the two go hand in hand. When you want things to be just right, you’re going to assess the level of ‘right-ness’ in every person, thing or event.
I judged none more harshly than myself. I wish I could go back to my younger self and wrap her in a big, warm hug. This person needs some kindness, care and reassurance that they are ok as they are.
Years on and I still judge myself, but I have lost the need to be perfect at all times. It is just far too much stress. I’ve learnt that 80% is good enough. There’s too many other things to care about than getting the exact details in order or acting in a perfectly polished way all the time.
One day I heard a term that helped me truly connect with the idea that being imperfect is the best form of perfection. If such a thing really exists.
While doing research for a holiday to Japan I came across the term wabi-sabi. And it really is a beautiful phrase.
What is Wabi-Sabi?
The wisdom of Japanese culture celebrates imperfection through the term wabi-sabi.
The term is created through the combination of two ideas:
Wabi: which refers to loneliness or being along with nature – meaning being in alignment with nature
Sabi: which refers to the passing of time, the ageing process and impermanent nature of all things
Together these parts create the complete meaning of the acceptance and appreciation of the imperfect and impermanent nature of all things. It is truly about celebrating imperfection.
This is in stark contrast to the ideals of perfection and that beauty equals perfection. We are taught from a young age about the societal standards of beauty and the need to exceed and beat our competition to be the best.
I love the term wabi-sabi as it encourages the embracing of being imperfect. If we are to compare ourselves against others, compete, try to win, be the best most perfect version of ourselves we can be – this does not guarantee happiness.
In my experience, the times I have tried really hard, and fought against my natural abilities and tried too hard to be someone I am not, in the pursuit of perfection – those are the times I have left feeling unsatisfied with the result. Worse still, I have felt drained in the process, and less than what I was before.
The pursuit of perfection is tiresome.
I love this notion that we can celebrate who we are – imperfect is the new perfect.
My Holiday in Japan
When I was in Japan I enjoyed the new experiences and appreciated the differences in culture, food, art, climate. All those things we enjoy about a holiday in a new place.
One of my experiences was to drink sake – a Japanese wine made from fermented rice. During our trip we stayed at accommodation with a Japanese host. She provided us a range of sake to try and some very small sake cups for us to drink from.
These small ceramic cups were beautiful. They each had tiny artworks painted onto the ceramic surface. They were not perfectly formed or unified. Each was a little different, differing heights, differing widths, and came in varying shades of green, blue and grey. The set was not a set because it was collectively uniform. It was a set because it belonged together, an arrangement with each piece complementing the others in its unique way.
It was memorable trying the different sakes, sipping from these exquisitely small, beautifully crafted vessels, which served to enhance the experience.
When you think of Japan you think cherry blossoms. Well, I know I do.
This was my first visit to Japan. I had dreamt of going there for many, many years. Ever since doing a school project on Japan when I was a child. I remember cutting out images from a travel magazine. Cherry blossoms featured heavily on my poster.
I knew I was travelling in a different season and would not get to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. It was winter and the cherry blossoms were coming alive over the weeks and months after we left.
However, when walking through gardens, I still admired the cherry blossom trees as they were. The buds were starting to form. You could see a tiny flash of colour peeking through. I still felt they were special and something to be appreciated, even though they did not represent the image I had from my school project many years before.
I was surprised by some of the temples we visited. What struck me was the simplicity of the design and decoration within. They were sparse, with the wooden beams and mat flooring the main distinguishing features of the rooms.
However, this is part of the aesthetic and philosophy of wabi-sabi. The minimalism and austerity of the interior provides a place of calm tranquillity.
It has a dual purpose to contrast against the natural beauty of the surrounding gardens. The gardens are manicured, flourishing and lush. The vibrant greens add life to an otherwise simplistic picture.
These temples are wabi-sabi. They are in alignment with the natural environment surrounding them.
How Can We Celebrate Imperfection?
Lessons from Japan
The Japanese have another term, kintsugi. This is the art of repairing broken pottery with a golden inlay. Instead of discarding the broken piece, it is restored. The gold serves to highlight the break and becomes part of the history and presence of the piece. Instead of a breakage being the end of something, it is the celebration of what was, and what now is.
The fault is not hidden but highlighted.
The piece is perfectly imperfect.
Imagine if instead of hiding our imperfections we proudly displayed them, even highlighting them, unconcerned with the increased attention towards our fault lines. What a liberating feeling that could be.
Lessons from Nature
It is easier to appreciate attractiveness of things outside of ourselves, such as nature, rather than the qualities within.
Seasons come and go, year after year. There is a distinct beauty in falling autumn leaves. We see their burnt orange colour and feel their crunch beneath our feet as we walk along.
Instead of feeling a sense of loss for the bare trees, we appreciate the beauty of those fallen leaves on the ground. It is part of the natural cycle of life. The leaves are impermanent, the trees change, and we appreciate when the spring season starts and we see the formation of new leaves start to grow.
Lessons for Ourselves
We do not have to wait until we are perfect to start living our lives, or to appreciate who we are.
We can go with the flow, change and grow.
Instead of worrying about seeking perfection, we can go forward as we are now, grateful for the state we are in.
We will learn as we go. Let us choose progress over perfection.
Let us embrace our beautiful selves
Our unique combination of strengths, abilities, failures, experiences all combine to create who we are. Just like the ceramic collection, we are not a set because each element is perfect. We are a complete person because of the sum of our combined experiences and characteristics.
Our strengths may not be what we want them to be. Our strengths may not be what we admire in others. But our strengths and experiences make us who we are. There is no one else exactly the same. Our authenticity gives us heart and strength.
We can celebrate beauty in others. It is time to celebrate it within ourselves too.
Wabi-sabi for Life
I came across a beautiful quote by Richard Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple.
“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect”
This quote captures the essence of wabi-sabi and the lesson for our life.
Life moves on whether we are ready for it or not.
The fact we are here is a wonderful miracle.
Let’s harness our strengths, our true nature – faults and all. And get moving.
Let’s love who we are. Our face will change. Our body will change. So too will our knowledge and abilities.
Regardless of how we each look, think, or feel, we will always be us. You will always be you. I will always be me. And time will always move on.
Let’s live in the now. Embrace ourselves. Embrace that life gives us the opportunity to grow and change and age.
Embrace the perfection of being imperfectly you.