Updated: Apr 4, 2020
In the 1999 Academy Award winning film "American Beauty," actress Annette Bening portrays a middle-aged real estate agent named Carolyn who has become obsessed with the appearance of perfection; as her burned-out advertising sales executive husband Lester (played by Kevin Spacey) states in the film's narrative, "See how the handle of her pruning shears matches the color of her gardening clogs? That's no accident. I get exhausted watching her. She wasn't always like this—she used to be happy." As Lester drops his briefcase on the way to the car, scattering all of its contents on the sidewalk, he then states that his wife considers him (by comparison) a "loser." Somewhere along the journey of her life, Carolyn chose to immerse herself in what she perceived as personal perfectionism. The movie viewer is given the distinct impression she'd lost her sense of self in her attempt to be a perfect wife, homemaker and mother, during which she collected a fair degree of self-hatred that she tries to obliterate by chanting "positive thinking" mantras while redefining herself with a new career. The scene where Carolyn prepares for the open house showing of one of her properties finds her stripped to her undergarments and high heels, reciting "I will sell this house today, I will sell this house today."
With obsessive-compulsive frenzy she cleans areas of the home that any potential buyer probably wouldn't even notice, and her incantations, scrubbing and over-enthusiastic glowing about the home's "fine points" are vain attempts to bypass acknowledging reality: the house itself is just plain mediocre. After the showing ends and a sale isn't made, Carolyn closes the blinds and erupts in sobs…but only for a few moments. Her aversion to what she considers personal weakness drives her to slap herself in the face, screaming "Shut up! Stop it you weak—you baby—shut up!" Sobbing a couple times more, she then adjusts herself and calmly leaves the house. As the story continues, more about Carolyn's obsession with perfection is revealed. In a scene after she and Lester attend a high school basketball game at which her daughter is a cheerleader, she "praises" her daughter's performance by saying, " Honey I'm so proud of you. I watched you closely—you didn't screw up once!" Carolyn is clearly in deep inner trouble. She has come to set impossibly high standards of what she deems as perfection for herself and her family. It's no wonder why her husband and daughter have become repulsed and frustrated by her lack of authenticity, her listening to "me-me-me"-centered success tapes and "elevator music" at dinner time, and her social climbing in the local real estate world, prompting Lester to define her existence as merely "a bloodless, money-grubbing freak." Ultimately, Carolyn's need to maintain tight control and demands of perfection in everything around her collapses as her world slowly begins to shatter, emphasized so perfectly when Lester tosses a platter of asparagus against the wall. Her affair with local real estate "king" Buddy Kane only brings temporary respite from her inner pain, and her "four thousand dollar sofa upholstered in Italian silk" is indeed "just a couch," and yes, just as Lester yells in frustration, her "stuff" (including her perfect American Beauty roses) had become more important to her than living. And as Lester rightly concludes, "That's just nuts." We are left at the end of the movie not knowing how, or if, she will recover after she finally understands what's real and important, albeit too late.
I recount this story because there is an epidemic of having to appear perfect in our culture that is causing considerable, often irreparable damage to our self images, personal health and both personal and working relationships. What is sad is that whoever and whatever has dictated what the notion of "perfect" is often is way out of line with what most people can possibly hope to attain. Even—and perhaps especially—those seeking spiritual "enlightenment" are prone to constant self-flagellation as they set their sites on lofty goals either by personal choice or under the influence or misinterpretation of what teachers, books and peers have told them about how they should be. In my own experience, I've had people expect me to be "perfect" since my life's path is partly about observing and discussing the impact our behavior has upon our spiritual growth—even though I am the first to say I don't have it all down and am a student of what I teach. The thing is, trying to be perfect can drive you perfectly crazy. It can make you emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually sick, and have a profoundly negative impact on those around you, especially if your standards of perfection are so way out in left field they are highly questionable and at times even laughable. If we bought into what the mainstream culture is telling us—that we have to be impossibly thin and gorgeous, have no wrinkles, be "super parents," devote ourselves to work to the exclusion of fun, non-doing and time with friends, lovers and family, be experts up on everything, live in a constant state of sleep deprivation, etc.—it's no wonder why so many reach for alcohol, drugs, anti-depressants, digestive and sleep aids and physical and sexual performance "enhancements." We are collectively becoming perfectly self-obsessed, neurotic, and overloaded yet empty at the same time. An obsession with perfection will never assist us in actualizing what we think it is. However, deeply honest self-inquiry, discrimination as to what is real and what is illusion aided by regular Source-connecting meditation will guide us to determine what our true imperfections are and help us begin to re-focus our energy on the elimination of our shadow thoughts and behaviors—of which an obsession with perfection and an abhorrence for imperfection is included. How else do we accomplish this? Surely not by beating ourselves up, and absolutely not without humility, empathy, compassion and patience toward all sentient beings, including ourselves. A strong sense of self-effacing humor is also highly recommended, as are finely tuned BS and personal landmines detectors. In "American Beauty," Carolyn buys into one of those seemingly inarguable-at-face-value sentiments chanted by human potential devotees and reiterated by her idol Buddy Kane: "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times."
But "faking it until you make it" is an extremely ridiculous notion, as it loads so much stress on the system, especially when the marker for what can arbitrarily be called success in our culture moves all the time and a person can forever find themselves neurotically chasing after "bigger and better." But even worse, projecting something you aren't because you want to reap the benefits you think it promises leaves you wide open to make all sorts of spiritually self-destructive choices, including compromising your own integrity and sense of self. This is true whether it is moving about in the career realm, engaging in competitive recreational activities or within both organized and loosely defined spiritual communities.
I have seen my share of articulate, charismatic spiritual and personal growth teachers and seminar leaders that project some dazzling image of "perfect enlightenment" but behind the scenes are anything but. The same goes for fellow seekers who consider themselves fairly advanced but aren't, as well as self-proclaimed healers and psychics who have the power to influence others yet whose knowledge is fragmented. Pretending to be what you are not is dangerous in terms of personal karma, not to mention the harm that can be to done to those who aren't astute enough see things as they are beyond any smoke and mirrors. It is a high responsibility to place yourself in any power-based relationship with other human beings, and proclaiming a level of mastery is never to be taken lightly. The pursuit of excellence in any given area is a very noble quest, considering the intention behind it is purely motivated. But one must ask within, "Why do I want to be what I consider to be perfect? What will it cost me? Am I setting myself up for failure? Are my goals attainable? Do I really want what I think I want?" True perfection has nothing to due with appearance, and authentic success is not merely about acquiring either power or "stuff"- especially if we neglect and abuse our overall well-being and our relationships with others in the process. Humbly accepting the place we are starting from and what our limitations and obstacles are, knowing where we'd like to be and choosing intelligently to take on that path toward our goal is a process that requires as much self honesty as it does diligent commitment and focus. Pacing ourselves along the way so that we don't become overwhelmed, being wise enough to question both the value and attainability of our quest, and refusing the pressure of both outside forces and our own potential for myopia and egoic self-delusion that our small self alone is the achiever are all allies in actualizing our highest potential in any given area.
Otherwise, we are just chasing our tail and annoying everyone in an impossible, toxic quest for perfection. © 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved. Please read the "Sharing Site Content" Policy and "Legal Stuff" pages.