The beautiful benefits of imperfection

messy bed
© Alena Ozerova

In the age of perfectionism, embracing your sloppy side can be a blessing.

There is a very old tradition woven into Japanese culture known as wabi-sabi. A tidy western translation proves tricky, but at its heart it is a celebration of the transient state of nature, even in all of its frowsy decay. To put it most simply, wabi-sabi is the art of imperfection.

While wabi-sabi has been secretly inspiring a lot of contemporary western design – think reclaimed wood, wonky pottery, scattered food in gourmet magazine spreads, and stock photos of messy beds (that, ok, probably took a stylist an hour to make perfectly imperfect, see photo above). Even so, perfectionism is on the rise. In fact, a study by Thomas Curran published in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that western college students are reporting significantly higher levels than previous generations in every form of perfectionism that the researchers measured.

Increasingly, from school grades and salary goals to lifestyle ambitions, we are setting unrealistic goals and it can take a toll on mental health. Which is why I say, ditch the perfectionism and embrace your inner wabi-sabi! Setting high standards is fine, but being obsessed with perfection to the point of mental distress makes being great, let alone being perfect, more difficult to achieve. So with that in mind, here’s what you can gain by easing up on the pursuit of perfection.

A lighter load of emotional baggage
"Perfectionists have a lot of baggage that other people don't,” Curren says on CNN, “and that baggage comes from constantly striving to appear perfect." Basically, it's not easy being perfect; it's heavy and exhausting.

Less depression and anxiety
According to Curren's co-author, Andrew P. Hill, increased perfectionism may be negatively impacting student's psychological health, noting the past decade's higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Failure becomes less daunting
"For a perfectionist, failure is catastrophic. It's catastrophic for their sense of self, and it's catastrophic for their emotional well-being," says Curren. Failure can be one of the best lessons out there; being lifted by it, rather than doomed by it, is a gift.

Living in the moment becomes easier
When the mind is not consumed by all the details of something being perfect, there is more room to enjoy the process. For instance, frosting a cake can be a tremendously fun thing to do, but if you are so overly concerned about a porcelain-smooth finish for the Instagram shot, the fun gets sucked right out of it. What good is a cake made with fretting rather than joy?

Productivity can increase
Psychologists see perfectionism almost always as a handicap, writes Adrian Furnham Ph.D. in Psychology Today. "They see perfectionists as vulnerable to distress, often haunted by a chronic sense of failure; indecisiveness and its close companion procrastination." Perfectionists, he says, can easily become immobilized and lose motivation.

Self esteem gets a boost
Furnham says that people focused on perfection tend to have low self-esteem, noting also the presence of "guilt and its fellow travelers, shame and self-recrimination." Admittedly it's not clear if low self esteem feeds perfectionism or if perfectionism feeds low self esteem, but when I think of the more confident people I know, they are the ones unashamed of imperfection.

Life becomes richer
When we live a rigid life in order to attain out-of-reach goals, we miss out on the organic rhythms that our mind and bodies might be moving to in a life less focused on perfection. Striving to be great ... or good or even just ok ... rather than perfect allows one to find their groove and excel, even if that means excelling with a messy sink or undone hair. And when you get to that point, and can find the liberating joy of imperfection? I'd say that's pretty perfect.

The beautiful benefits of imperfection
In the age of perfectionism, embracing your sloppy side can be a blessing.

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