Does Perfectionism Lead To True Happiness?

by Faith & Life, Self-Knowledge

This short film, Perfection, tells the story of a woman who is taught to play the game ‘Perfection’ while still a baby. She has 60 seconds to place 25 small, differently shaped pieces into their corresponding holes. We see her as a toddler, a little girl, a teenager, a young woman and finally as an adult, trying to complete the game within the time allowed. But it’s just a game…isn’t it?

A Deeper Look

Of course, this woman doesn’t spend her whole time playing a game. She also studies, and plays the violin. It would appear that her life is a success. She is a slim, attractive graduate with a good job. But we also see that she is not happy. When she stands beside her friend who is getting married we see that, in fact, she is deeply unhappy.

Perfection | Short Film

Let’s follow one example throughout the film, that of the violin. She begins by playing the violin at home, her ever-present mother encouraging her to practice. When she takes part in a competition and wins her first trophy, we see how happy and excited she is. But by the time she wins her fourth trophy, the sense of achievement has dulled. Soon she has a whole shelf full of awards and there is no room for any more.

Eventually, she shuts her violin away with a certain finality. The focus shifts to other areas of life – if only she were prettier. As we then see retainers and make-up give way to an obsession with her weight and hours on the treadmill. But she still isn’t perfect, or happy. When she manages to fit all the pieces into their spaces, she finds there is one missing. The game can never be completed, perfection can never be achieved: it is impossible.

At this point I want to be clear about something: none of these things are bad in themselves. Playing music, sport, studying, taking exams, competing, working, caring for our bodies, obeying our parents – these are none of them bad! God has given us many gifts and talents and it is right and, what is more, it is good that we should nurture and develop them.

Problems start to creep in when we see those gifts as the totality of ourselves, and that only by being better than everyone else, by being perfect, will we be happy. We can end up believing that we are one aspect of ourselves, or that we are the sum of our achievements. If we fail at one thing, we have failed at everything, we have failed as a person; we have failed at life.

Measuring ourselves like this can leave us thinking and believing all sorts of nonsense. It is not too hard to see that it is only a short step from thinking, ‘I am my ability to walk downstairs, carrying a vase of flowers’ to believing that ‘Someone who can’t walk isn’t really a person’ with all the consequences that brings. There is a phrase that can be applied to everything we do: ‘I have…but I am not…’ So: I have a body, but I am not my body. I am intelligent, but I am not my intelligence. I play the violin, but I am not my violin playing. I failed an exam, but I am not my exam results.

Apostolic Elements

There is a difference between ‘perfectionism’ and the search for authentic perfection. Perfectionism is rooted in pride. It never pauses to recognize and be grateful for the achievements we make, but instead it obsessively drives us on towards an unobtainable goal, nourished by and also feeding our insecurities and lack of self-worth in a vicious circle that can never lead to happiness. On the other hand, the search for true perfection is an adventure. It is the adventure of our own self-realization, our efforts as children of God to discover, unwrap and use the gifts our loving Father has given to us.

Telling the difference between the two requires looking at our intentions. True perfection comes from directing all our thoughts and actions towards God, seeking to give thanks to the Lord Jesus, and rejoice in his generosity rather than glorifying ourselves.

We should also remember the paradox of failure: it is in our imperfections that God’s glory shines. The path to which God invites us is full of suffering and apparent failure. The path to true perfection is the Way of the Cross.

Bible Quotes For Reflection

2Cor 4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.

1Cor 1:23 We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles

2Cor 12:10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Lk 9:23 And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Js 1:17  Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

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