Have you ever seen the yin yang symbol?
It has always intrigued me since childhood.
I’d spot it in my mom’s martial arts films, on my brother’s pendant necklace or as a tattoo.
In short, the yin yang symbol comes from ancient Chinese philosophy, dating back to at least 3,500 years old. It represents the opposing yet complementary forces that govern the universe.
Huh? What does this have to do with perfectionism?
Indeed, the concept of yin and yang seem far-off. But after years of study and experimentation, I’ve extracted valuable lessons about perfectionism from it.
Shall I tell you about them?
1) Success and failure go together
See how the yin yang symbol above has two equal parts, the black and white teardrops?
The black area represents “yin” and the white, “yang”: Different elements of the world come in yin/yang pairs like day/night, cold/hot and passive/active.
Day and night are opposites, yet without day, the sun wouldn’t kiss the flowers. Without night, our bodies would never rest.
So, day and night coexist and balance each other out.
Similarly, success and failure are opposites, yet you can’t have one without the other. Failure allows us to explore what works and what doesn’t.
In other words, it’s the key to success.
Perfectionists abhor mistakes. But “perfecting” your way through life does more harm than good.
Instead, change your mindset about setbacks.
Let them help you learn and grow.
And celebrate your failures.
“All can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other:
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.”
—Lao Tzu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Tao Te Ching
2) All-or-nothing thinking doesn’t work
When you do a job perfectly, you feel on top of the world; when you don’t, you feel like crap. There’s no in-between.
As a recovering perfectionist, I struggle with hitting “publish” before my article is “just right”. What if you (my dear reader) don’t like it? Worst, what if no one reads it?
But if I let all-or-nothing thinking stop me, I wouldn’t have the pleasure of sharing my experiences with you—and perhaps, help you become more confident and joyful.
Do you see how the black and white teardrops in the yin yang symbol “chase” each other? As yin grows, yang emerges. It’s a constant cycle.
Nothing is ever black or white.
“The only constant in life is change.” —Heraclitus
So, if your worth depends on something fleeting like achievements, you’ll bust your butt for… stress, anxiety and depression.
Let go of all-or-nothing thinking by paying attention to when mistakes imply failure to you.
Maybe you made good progress on a healthy diet, but gave in to ice cream… Do you beat yourself up?
Then, find the positives: I ate healthy for one week straight. I’ve been good at cutting back on dessert. This is a new lifestyle for me, so I can give myself some slack.
Treat yourself kindly.
With practice, it’ll get easier.
3) Perfection is in the imperfections
In the yin yang symbol, there’s a small white circle in the black teardrop (and vice versa).
It represents the idea that a bit of yin or yang resides in its opposite. The unity of opposites make one whole (thus, the circular form of the symbol).
Kintsugi pottery showcases this unity particularly well.
It came about when a 15th-century Japanese emperor refused a cracked tea bowl repaired with drab staples. So, craftsmen bound the ceramic pieces together with gold, creating a unique work of art.
Our materialistic society obsesses over perfection. I wonder, what if we welcomed more wabi-sabi, or imperfect beauty, into our lives?
“Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered, no matter how trifling….
In other words, wabi-sabi tells us to stop our preoccupation with success—wealth, status, power and luxury—and enjoy the unencumbered life….
Just as it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to know when not to make choices: to let things be.”
― Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
Take a deep breath and center yourself.
Enjoy this simple moment.
4) We’re all in this together
Everyone wants to feel loved, accepted and safe.
When our needs aren’t met, we often blame, isolate ourselves or work like crazy. Our inner bully makes us believe we’re unworthy until we:
- Complete mile-long to-do lists
- Look healthy and put together at all times
- Make everyone else happy first
Let’s remind ourselves that we’re human—yin and yang.
We each have our own challenges. You and I slip up and try to do our best. No one’s perfect.
In other words, you’re not alone, friend.
Don’t be so harsh on yourself. Open your arms towards your shadow—all that you’ve deemed ugly, bad or inadequate—to let in the light.
Dr. Kristen Neff suggests writing down your flaws and letting yourself feel the emotions that arise. Simply becoming aware of your emotions can bring more peace.
Try other writing exercises here.
5) Embrace all of you to feel whole
In high school, I identified with creative rebels who boasted their differences. We’d blast Björk and Bikini Kill songs and paint away during our “art parties”.
I’d scoff at the vibrant motivational posters on classroom walls: “Be yourself”, pfft… Yeah, tell that to everyone else!
Confident I was already rocking who I was, I rolled my eyes at the cheerleaders, athletes and nerds. They seemed stuck in their roles.
Little did I know, priding myself on being an outcast actually reinforced my fear of rejection…
As a child, I felt rejected by my classmates, parents and friends. So, to protect myself from getting hurt again, I rejected everyone.
Voilà, the rebel was born.
And for double protection, I ensured everything I did, wore and said was “perfect”. That way, no one could ever criticize me again.
Can you remember when your perfectionism began?
Did you feel the same way?
The desire to feel accepted holds strong. Because back in the day, we secured our well-being by belonging to a tribe.
However, when we suppress parts of ourselves, beat ourselves up or avoid self-care, we’re letting other people control our lives. And ultimately, we feel unworthy and lonely.
“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running away from it.
Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—experiences that make us the most vulnerable.
Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will be discover the infinite power of our light.”
—Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
For more peace, harmony and love
We must embrace everything about us to feel fulfilled. The yin yang symbol guides us to balance the positives and negatives within.
It’s not easy.
Many things get in the way. If we let them, they keep us small and unhappy:
- past hurts
- your upbringing (for example, “Girls should be modest”)
- unsupportive loved ones
- our “no pain, no gain” society
- conventional standards of beauty
Yet it’s liberating to know you’re never just one thing. You have the seeds of success and failure, happiness and unhappiness. For every negative, its opposite exists within you.
So, it’s up to you to decide which seeds you’d like to water.
Remember, though, to avoid leaning towards extremes.
Strike a delicate balance.
And marvel at your journey.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help perfectionists let go of self-doubt, fear of failure and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter and get access to free resources.