Joy or Perfection?
Present Sense № 5
Welcome to Present Sense – a weekend curation for your seven senses with a recommendation to SEE, HEAR, SMELL, TASTE, TOUCH, BALANCE and ENVISION. Each week also includes an audio guided meditation.
Would you rather be right or happy?
I’m not sure who came up with this wise saying, though I originally attributed it to Ram Dass.
The premise, as I understand it, is that self-righteousness is an obstacle to happiness. It leads to a feeling of separateness, superiority, and loneliness.
The same could be said about perfectionism: Would you rather be perfect or joyous?
Perfectionism – just like self-righteousness – alludes to fulfillment and boosts us with dopamine hits on the journey. But perfectionism never delivers on its promise. Instead, it sucks the joy out of everything. It’s a corrosive force that blocks spontaneity, hinders connection and suffocates authenticity.
I had a good case of it last week when I took a dance class – the first one since I was a kid. It was promoted for “all levels,” but once we started dancing, it became clear that some people were more experienced than others. The moves we learned were quite simple, but I had trouble following along. I felt stiff, awkward, and unsynchronized – out of step with joy.
At some point, the teacher singled me out to try to demonstrate a move I was struggling with. He was friendly and patient but I felt a wave of embarrassment take over my body. I barely managed to fight back the tears that started welling up and tried my best to pull a smile. My reaction felt disproportionate, but the voices of shame were blasting their own music.
By the time I got back in my car, tears were flowing down my cheeks and carried on the whole drive home. I was reminded of why I had quit ballet when I was eight. I had spotted, in my very first class, two students (a boy and a girl) who were the most talented dancers in our group. Their posture was impeccable, their backs naturally arched, and they could stretch their limbs like pretzels. The teacher fawned over them, often using them as examples to follow. I didn’t bother asking how long they’d taken classes, but concluded I was never going to be like them. And if I couldn’t be the best – or at least good – then I had no interest. The solution? Quitting.
My eight year old mind didn’t understand that talent takes practice. At that age, I couldn’t appreciate that the process is the reward. But the deeply ingrained motto of ‘be perfect or quit’ remained my behavioral compass for decades. I just started rerouting that belief in recent years, and sometimes, it still creeps up.
Any event – like failing dance class – can set the stage for the wound of unworthiness to take the spotlight. But perfectionism is a disguise. It usually hides a profound longing: for safety, for belonging, for love.
The tears I released on my drive home sprung from a deep well of sadness. I cried for all the times I’ve held back or quit, and missed out on joy in my pursuit for perfection. The irony is that it was never attainable, a dangling carrot that I would never reach, because it was always an illusion.
I could carry out that story of perfectionism, or I could explore another path. I decided to follow the old proverb: when you fall off a horse, you hop right back on. So I took another dance class this week. It was a very different style and context, and this time… I still wasn’t good at it. But at least, I had a blast. And I’ll be doing it again.
This week’s 7 sensory recommendations includes: a video from this week’s dance class; a guided meditation for quieting your inner perfectionist –– along with other delights to See, Hear, Smell, Taste, Touch, Balance and Envision.