Excerpt from “The Courage to Be Imperfect,” a speech by Rudolf Dreikurs
I have found many, many who try so hard to be good. But I have failed yet to see that they have done so for the welfare of others. What I find behind these people who try to be so good is a concern with their own prestige. They are good for the benefit of their own self elevation. Anybody who is really concerned with the welfare of others won’t have any time or interest to become concerned with the question of how good he is.
Horizontal / Vertical Plane
To explain a little bit further I might perhaps present to you two ways of movement on the social scene; two ways of working, of applying oneself. We can distinguish them as the horizontal plane and the vertical plane.What do I mean by that? Some people entirely and others in certain areas move on the horizontal plane. That means that whatever they do they move toward others; they want to do something for others, they are interested in others– they merely function. That is clearly distinguishable from another motivation by which people move on the vertical plane. Whatever they are doing, they are doing it because they want to be higher, they want to be better.
As a matter of fact, improvement and contributions, can be done in either way: there are people who do something well because they enjoy doing it; and others who can do something well because they are glad to prove how good they are. Even human progress probably depends just as well on the contributions of those who move on the horizontal and on the vertical plane.Many have done tremendous benefit to mankind actually motivated only be the question of proving how good they are – looking for their own superiority. And others have done a great deal of good – as we call it, in an unselfish way – without consideration of what they may get out of it.
And yet there is a fundamental difference in the way things are accomplished, whether you move on the horizontal or the vertical plane. When you move on the vertical plane you go up; you increase your knowledge, you increase your status, your respect, your prestige – perhaps even your money. But at the same time nobody who moves on the vertical plane is ever only moving up. He is constantly moving up and down, up and down. One day when he does something good, he moves a few notches up; next moment when he makes some mistake he moves back down again. Up and down, up and down. That is exactly the plane on which most of our contemporaries move today. The consequences are obvious. A person who moves on the vertical plane can never be sure that he is high enough, never be sure the next morning that he is not coming down again. Therefore he has to live with tension and fears and anxieties. He is constantly vulnerable. As soon as something doesn’t go well, down he goes – if not in the opinion of others, then in his own.
Quite different is the movement on the horizontal plane. The person who moves on the horizontal plane is constantly moving ahead in the direction he wants to move. He doesn’t move up but he moves ahead.When something goes wrong, he considers what’s going on, tries to find a way around, tries to remedy it. He is merely motivated by interest.If he motivation is very strong, he may even have enthusiasm. But he doesn’t think about his own self-evaluation; he is interested in functioning instead of being concerned with his own status or prestige.
And so we can see how on the one side, on the horizontal plane we have the desire to be useful. On the vertical plane we have the desire for self-evaluation with the constant fear of making mistakes. And yet, most people today, stimulated by our general social values of social competition, are entirely devoting themselves to the problem of their own value and self-elevation – never sure that they are good enough, never quite sure that they will measure up; even though in the eyes of their fellow man they may be highly successful.
Now that points us, then, to a crucial question for those who are so concerned with self-elevation. The crucial question is the problem of mistakes – making mistakes.
Perfectionism doing “Right”
We can well see that perfectionism is rampant today. A great many people try so hard to do right and to be right. Only a few psychiatrists are perhaps catching on to the implications of such a desire which has highly depreciated our fellow men, our society.
Let us perhaps first state the one thing; right and wrong are judgments. In many cases they are valueless judgments. The right and wrong can be clearly defined only when we have absolutes – only in an absolutistic way can we say “that is right” and “this is wrong.” And there are many people who out of the tradition of our culture are still looking for this absolute. Truth is an absolute; something is either wrong or right, true or false. That is how we think. And perhaps that is the way we have to act.
How much we contribute to each other, how powerful we each are – and don’t know it. And that is the reason then why we can’t be satisfied with ourselves and look to elevate ourselves – afraid of the mistakes which would ruin us – and try desperately to gain the superiority over others. So perfection, therefore, is by no means a necessity; it is even impossible.
There are people who are always so afraid of doing wrong because they don’t see their value; remain eternal students because only in school one can tell them what is right, and they know how to get good grades.But in life you can’t do that. All the people who are afraid of making mistakes, who want by all means to be right, can’t function that well.But there is only one condition on which you can be sure you are right when you try to do something; to do right.
There is one condition alone which would permit you to be relatively sure whether you are right or wrong. That is afterwards. When you do something you never can be sure – you only see if it is right by how it turns out. Anybody who has to be right can’t move much, can’t make any decision, because we can never be sure that we are right. To be right is a false premise and it usually leads to the misuse of this right. Have you any idea how many people are torturing their friends and their families because they have to be right – and unfortunately they are? There is nothing worse than the person who always has the right argument. There is nothing worse than a person who always is right morally. And he shows it.
This right morally and right logically is very often an offense to human relationships. In order to be right you sacrifice kindness, patience; if you want, tolerance. No, out of this desire for rightness we don’t get peace, we don’t get cooperation; we merely end up by trying to give the others the idea of how good we are when we can’t even fool ourselves. No, to be human does not mean to be right, does not mean to be perfect. To be human means to be useful, to make contributions, not for oneself, but others. To take what there is and make the best out of it. It requires faith in oneself and faith and respect for others. But that has a prerequisite; that we can’t be overly concerned with their shortcomings, we have no respect, neither for ourselves nor for others.
Courage to Be Imperfect
We have to learn the art, and to realize that we are good enough as we are because we never will be better, regardless of how much more we may know, how much more skill we may acquire, how much status or money or what-have-you. If we can’t make peace with ourselves as we are, we never will be able to make peace with ourselves. And this requires the courage to be imperfect; requires the realization that I am no angel, that I am not superhuman, that I make mistakes, that I have faults; but I am pretty good because I don’t have to be better than the others. Which is a tremendous belief. If you accept just being yourself, the devil of vanity, the golden calf of my superiority vanish. If we learn to function, to do our best regardless of what it is; out of the enjoyment of the functioning we can grow just as well, even better than if we would drive ourselves to be perfect – which we can’t be.
We have to learn to live with ourselves and the relationship of natural limitations and the full awareness of our own strengths.