Tuesday, April 28, 2009

'The Pursuit of Perfect' by Tal Ben-Shahar

For the past few years I have noticed a bothersome tendency in me. At some point I realized that there were a whole lot of issues in my life and problems I have with myself and that a few self-help books might help. So I started reading these books obsessively. The tendency I mentioned is that I do not have enough determination to actually stick with any of the techniques I read about in the self-help books. Another thing is, I become frustrated with the mixed messages I get while reading and that just adds to my quick disenchantment. I honestly thought that would be the case with The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar but after having read it, I think there might be actually something more to it.
The main thought throughout the book is how trying to live a perfect life, to have perfect looks and perfect careers is actually ruining our lives. Shortly said, perfectionism is bad. On the other hand, we, the people obsessed with the perfect, should instead try to attain a state of optimalism, a term Mr. Ben-Shahar came up with. Tal Ben-Shahar is a perfectionist and he noticed long time ago that trying to have it all and avoiding failure, negative emotions and get the goals no matter what was making his life miserable. He had done a lot of research to find a way out of his misery and the outcome is The Pursuit of Perfect, in which we are presented with a solution: a middle ground and acceptance of our human nature. The book offers some simple, yet great exercises which do not require a lot of time or effort, and most importantly leave some space for error, since they need not be done perfectly. At the core of the whole book is that our society shuns pain, sorrow, unhappiness and requires us all to be always at our best behavior, always smiling, always being nice to customers and fellow employers and if there is a shadow of anger or sadness lurking about, we run to doctor’s for pills and therapies, because these emotions are absolutely unwelcome. Ben-Shahar argues that as humans we are equipped with tools within ourselves to deal with negative emotions and one of these tools is “going with it”, instead of burying a specific feeling we have and we don’t want to have, be it fear, jealousy, anger and so forth. The more we deny ourselves these emotions the more persistent they will be and sooner or later they will resurface making us miserable.
I have to say that despite my doubts about a self-help book ever working for me, The Pursuit of Perfect appealed to me a lot. First of all, even if perfectionism was never one of my many vices, I realized that I was too among the hordes of people trying to live up to societal expectations of the perfect. From the first pages I could tell that this book had a potential of opening my eyes and also giving me permission to just act according to my human nature, to be simply ‘good enough’ and not necessarily ‘better than’. Mr. Ben-Shahar’s writing is very accessible and quite persuasive. To give you an example, I have always been a person who would suddenly feel envy towards somebody else and then immediately I would scorn myself for feeling this horrible emotion, put it aside and in the end beating myself for the rest of the day about how I must be a bad human being for feeling envy towards somebody that most likely doesn’t deserve it. A few days ago, I was sitting in a public place, waiting my turn to be serviced and reading the part of the book which talks about not suppressing our negative feelings but instead accepting them. And wouldn’t you know, there comes a drop-dead girl, wearing sexy clothes and attracting stares of every male specimen in the room. I immediately start being jealous and think of all the reasons why she really is looking ridiculous and completely overdressed and how she truly is screaming for attention. But instead of suppressing these emotions of jealousy and low self-confidence, I decided to just stay with them and take a closer look at the girl. I allowed myself to feel the negativity, I accepted the fact that I indeed was being jealous and went back to reading my book. Hours later, when I left the building, I all of a sudden realized that I completely forgot about that girl, didn’t beat myself up for being jealous and I had a fairly good, relaxing time as opposed to being literally devoured by envy. So there you have it. It worked and I have a strong feeling that if this one worked, others might too.

Special Thanks to Anna S. from FSB Associates for sending me a copy of this book.
Also, don't forget to visit Tal Ben-Shahar's website to get more info on his books.