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Book Review: The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

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Do you wrestle with maintaining happiness in your daily life? Does the success rat race keep you stressed? Or maybe you just think that perfectionism is attainable when you work at the right things hard enough for long enough. If this touches a chord for you and you are ready to consider the possibility of adopting a new way of thinking about your life, read The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.

Covering topics like failure, success, reality, love, and work, the author makes a compelling case for seeking to become a recovered perfectionist — as he has. Through a combination of personal anecdotes, extensive research, and numerous soul-searching exercises, Ben-Shahar leads readers to their own personal discovery of subtle perfectionist traits or to tackle the stronghold of the perfectionism trap. While one or two chapters stretched my patience for academic style writing, for the most part, this book takes on an easy read tone.

The Pursuit of Perfect was originally written as a workbook. With frequent "TIME-IN" sections, readers are invited to engage in specific self reflections. For the more "homework" oriented person, each chapter has a set of easy to do exercises compelling readers to be proactive toward change. As a guide to discovering one's individual thinking about perfectionism, I began to wonder, "Is there a little bit of perfectionism in all of us?"

I confronted my brand of perfectionism in my 20s and 30s during 13 years of government service as a probation and parole officer. You see, the "bad guys" were not really all that bad; while many of the "good guys" (coworkers and management) needed lots of work on themselves. My incredible experience in this role forced me out of my typical judgmental and perfectionist thinking. I can totally relate to the trap of perfectionism.

Ben-Shahar makes a clever case about the paradox of perfectionism, the fear of failure, and the achievement of success. In a backwards way, we cannot truly feel or know success if we embrace perfectionism because we are always looking for the next goal to conquer while avoiding choices that may produce failure, which could eventually lead to significant success. I have always made it a habit to return to rest on my past laurels to gain perspective on any current failure I was experiencing. I agree that without failure there can be no true or continued success.

As an alternative, Ben-Shahar carefully describes an optimalist as the healthy cousin of the perfectionist. His description about the difference between the two is written very clearly and sensibly. And for readers who may be in denial of their own shades of perfectionism, this discussion can become a light switch to an alternative path. After the defeat of my own perfectionism, I adopted my own optimalist position, which was a prioritizing system — a hierarchy of sorts — regarding how well anything that I wanted to accomplish had to be done. This became my own "good enough" benchmark, which relates to the good enough standards described by others and resembles Ben-Shahar's description of an optimalist.

My favorite section of The Pursuit of Perfect is in Part Two, Chapter Seven — Optimal Love. Cultures around the world have sold the illusion of the 'perfect love'. Many of our intimate relationships have sunk into despair by comparison. We simply fail to understand that, although there are likely many people in the world we can love, the successful and enduring relationship is between people who recognize and accept each other's flaws. Although a very brief chapter, it captures major thinking points for healthy relationships. As a relationship expert, I can really get behind this.

"While not all relationships should or can be sustained, while not all partners are compatible, the dissolution or deterioration of most relationships is avoidable. To realize the potential inherent in the relationship, it is necessary to accept that there are flaws in the partner and in the partnership." (p. 154)

I also found Chapter Two, Accepting Emotions, in Part One to be written with excellent clarity on the complex subject of emotions. When I work with clients who fear owning or expressing their emotions, I offer this thought, "Your feelings do not get you into trouble. Only your behavior does." Tal Ben-Shahar expresses it this way:

"Certain feelings are inescapable. No person is free from the experience of jealousy or fear or anxiety or anger. The real question is not whether we experience these feelings — we all do — but what we decide to do about them."(p.53)

The final section of the book is a series of 10 meditations. This is a quick and easy read section where readers can choose to focus on cognitive reflection or apply the lessons as a call to action.

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