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On the Perfectionist Bent

What Buddhism has to say about what drives us and how to truly enjoy our lives.

Photo by sweetsake / Tim Roberts / Evgenii141 / Getty Images

In July 2018, a BuzzFeed podcaster sent a callout via Twitter: Post a picture you’ve shared on social media where you looked fine but weren’t.

The Tweet prompted nearly 35,000 responses, with people reposting photos of themselves smiling broadly and even confidently, when in reality they had just experienced a major anxiety attack, argued with a significant other, felt isolated, suffered from postpartum depression, and the list goes on.

Why do people feel the need to project a perfect self to the world, especially to strangers? And when does that drive become detrimental, even harmful, to ourselves?

According to research by the American Psychological Association, the notion of perfectionism—defined here as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others”—has increased significantly among young people since the 1980s,[1] not to mention the rest of us. And multiple studies show that social media is one of the main feeders of this perfectionist bent.

When this trait becomes excessive, it can cause us to live with an all-or-nothing mindset that robs us of the ability to find joy in our everyday lives. So how do we navigate an increasingly perfectionist world? Buddhism offers the following perspective.

“Nobody’s Perfect”

When we look at reality just as it is and pull forth its positive aspects, we can find a way to move forward. Photo by Carol yepes / Getty Images.

Our Buddhist practice is one of continual self-improvement, in which we strive for lofty goals, rooted in our bodhisattva vow—which is reflected in our dedication to help others by becoming examples of how to bring forth our compassion, wisdom, courage and humanity to overcome the challenges before us.

This is a far cry from perfectionism that is driven by fear of failure or low self-esteem, which can prompt us to be overly critical of ourselves and others, inflexible and impatient about where we are in life.

In volume 6 of The New Human Revolution, Ikeda Sensei visits a woman who is struggling with life in a different country. During their visit, the husband shares with Sensei that, although she wishes to return home, life there wasn’t ideal for her either. “My wife tends to be a perfectionist,” he explains. “When her efforts didn’t bring exactly the results she’d hoped for, she lost confidence and became depressed.”[1] Sensei then shares the following with her:

Nobody’s perfect. Nor is there a perfect living environment where everything will be just the way you want it. It seems to me that you may be setting impossibly high standards for yourself. … You are then trying to make everything measure up to these unrealistic standards.

But reality invariably never quite matches our ideal vision or image. So you end up finding fault with everything, adding to your despair and amplifying your discontent.[2]

Can anyone relate? Sensei likens this approach to life as one in which we’re attached to or constrained by our own unrealistic standards. He continues:

It’s kind of like looking at a plum tree expecting it to be a cherry tree. You say, “What a strange-looking cherry tree!” and end up being disappointed. Instead, you should try to see things more flexibly. Don’t get caught up in the rigid idea that things must be just the way that you have painted in your mind. …

No matter where you go, there will be some degree of difficulty or unpleasantness. It’s the same for everyone, no matter where or under what circumstances. No place or person is 100 percent perfect. …

Rather than being attached to and constrained by your own idealistic standards, you should look hard at reality just as it is. Then try to discover some positive or enjoyable aspects and use them for your own benefit.[3]

When we look at reality just as it is and pull forth its positive aspects, we can find a way to move forward, even if only a single step.

In Buddhism, we view our mistakes and challenges as the fuel to grow and develop, with our eyes fixed on the future.

Mistakes Don’t Equal Failure

We should not be afraid of failure or mistakes but of letting them defeat us. Photo by peopleImages / Getty Images.

The last time you made a mistake, big or small, did you brood over it, beat yourself up or find it difficult to move forward?

Consider what would’ve happened if these change-makers gave up on themselves after not one or two but a string of failures: Winston Churchill did poorly in school. Mahatma Gandhi was shy, timid and a poor speaker. Albert Einstein was a mediocre student but excelled in math. Speaking to youth, Sensei asked what these people had in common. “Their refusal to give up on themselves,” he said.[4]

In short, making mistakes does not equal failure. Rather, in Buddhism, we view our mistakes and challenges as the fuel to grow and develop, with our eyes fixed on the future. In the process, we build an inner fortitude that can remain undefeated by life’s ups and downs.

Sensei recalls of his own youth, when he was striving to help his mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, keep his businesses afloat: “There were many times when I felt we had exhausted all options. But the true struggle of faith starts when we’re at rock bottom. I roused the strength and energy of a charging lion and did everything I could to support my mentor.”[5]

When we chant resolute daimoku and engage in Buddhist practice without retreating, we learn how to create victory from desperate circumstances and how to continually prove the greatness of our own lives. Therefore, experiencing setbacks is a crucial part of life, especially when young. Sensei reaffirms this point, saying:

It can be ruinous for young people to adopt an overly cautious attitude, always playing it safe. The failures you experience at times in your youth can be incredibly valuable in building the foundation for your future. Young people should be aware of the fact that they are not perfect and should try to live each day with courage, true to themselves.

Those who lead resolute lives, who possess an invincible spirit and can rise up from the depths of despair like phoenixes from the ashes are much more likely to achieve brilliant victory in the end than those who have never experienced failure or disappointment. We should not be afraid of failure or mistakes but of letting them defeat us.

Allowing one or two setbacks to discourage us is foolish. Life is a long, long journey. … Please advance courageously with the conviction that the more mistakes you make in your youth, the more you can build the foundation for a new chapter in your life and for your lifelong happiness.[6]

With such a long-term, proactive and positive approach to life, everything becomes a starting point for further development and happiness.

Uncovering the Best You

The Buddhist concept of “cherry, plum, peach and damson” teaches us that we each possess a unique and irreplaceable mission in life. Photo by Letizia Le Fur / Getty Images.

It is, perhaps, the most human of traits to judge ourselves relative to how well we fulfill socially prescribed roles. Early on, we begin judging our worth in relation to others, thinking: I’m not as smart as that person or I don’t have as many friends as so-and-so. As we grow older, that same tendency evolves into weighing the value of our lives based on transient phenomena from work, to our weight to the size of our bank account.

But the Buddhist concept of “cherry, plum, peach and damson” teaches us that we each possess a unique and irreplaceable mission in life; otherwise we wouldn’t have been born. The purpose of our practice is to bloom in a way most natural and true to ourselves and in our own time. Sensei explains:

The cherry tree blossoms as a cherry tree, living to fulfill its own unique role. The same is true of the plum, peach and damson trees. Each of us should do likewise. We each have a unique personality. We have a distinct nature and character, and our lives are each noble and worthy of respect. That’s why we should always live with a solid self-identity, in a way that is true to ourselves.

Each of us has a mission and a way of life that is ours alone. We don’t need to try to be like anyone else. The cherry tree has its own life and inherent causes for being a cherry. The plum, peach and damson also each have their own inherent causes. And in the same way, from the viewpoint of Buddhism, we each have a mission we were born to carry out in this world, and we each have our own inherent causes to be who we are. Practicing the Mystic Law enables us to experience the joy of discovering this.[7]

Giving in to envy or despair gets us nowhere. When we focus on developing our own unique potential every day, those efforts will lead to a victorious life.

We each have a mission we were born to carry out in this world, and we each have our own inherent causes to be who we are.

“Prayer Is the Way to Destroy All Fear”

Regardless of where we find ourselves now, we can pray and make causes for the future. Photo by Ippei Naoi / Getty Images.

How do we transform a life driven by fear of failure into one in which our actions are rooted in our bodhisattva vow? Nichiren Daishonin states, “Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is what is meant by entering the palace of oneself.”[8] Here, he describes the life state of Buddhahood, the inexhaustible wellspring of limitless potential that nothing can destroy. Regarding the power of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Sensei says:

Prayer is the courage to persevere. It is the struggle to overcome our own weakness and lack of confidence in ourselves. It is the act of impressing in the very depths of our being the conviction that we can change the situation without fail. Prayer is the way to destroy all fear. It is the way to banish sorrow, the way to light a torch of hope. It is the revolution that rewrites the scenario of our destiny. Believe in yourself! Don’t sell yourself short! Devaluing yourself is contrary to Buddhism, because it denigrates the Buddha state of being within you.[9]

Buddhism teaches that every moment is a fresh starting point. Regardless of where we find ourselves now, we can pray and make causes for the future, developing a strong and imperturbable life condition in the process. “We are always standing at the fundamental starting point of everything,” Sensei explains. “Drawing forth the boundless life force of our inherent Buddhahood, we can dynamically transform ourselves and our lives where we are right now.”[10]

Rather than comparing ourselves to others, it’s much more meaningful to challenge ourselves to be better today than we were yesterday. Digging into fulfilling our unique vow for kosen-rufu, we can create a life of limitless value, embracing and enjoying everything life has to offer, mistakes and all.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department

We can dynamically transform ourselves and our lives where we are right now.


+Resources

PODCAST:

Buddhability Episode #20: How to stop comparing yourself to others

Harrison Tsao shares his story of constantly being compared to his twin brother and overcoming anxiety and depression through his Buddhist practice.

BOOKS:

Discussions on Youth

“At times you may feel that you cannot believe in anyone, that no one loves you or that you have no reason to live. But do not judge yourselves. You must never give up on yourselves. There is no one who does not have a mission in this world. You would not have been born if you did not have a mission to fulfill.” (p. x)

Available here

ARTICLES:

Feel Like You’re Falling Behind?

Buddhability teaches how to overcome the feeling that you are falling behind in life.

Q: I’ve Lost Confidence Because of My Mistakes. How Do I Move Forward?

Ikeda Sensei’s brief guidance on not being deterred by mistakes.

Keep Moving Forward

If you should fall, just get right back up. If you can pick yourself up, you can move forward.

References

  1. The New Human Revolution, vol. 6, p. 22.
  2. Ibid., pp. 22–23.
  3. Ibid., p. 23.
  4. Discussions on Youth, p. 26.
  5. June 2014 Living Buddhism, p. 7.
  6. The Wisdom for Creating and Happiness and Peace, part 2, p. 274.
  7. Ibid., p. 127.
  8. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 209.
  9. December 3, 2004, World Tribune, p. 8.
  10. October 2019 Living Buddhism, p. 60.

References

  1. “Perfectionism Among Young People Significantly Increased Since 1980s, Study Finds,” www.apa.org/news/press/releases/
    2018/01/perfectionism-young-people
    <accessed on May 20, 2021>. ↩︎

My Life Has Limitless Value

Celebrating the 55th Anniversary of the Young Men’s Division