The Illusion of Perfection and How We Can See Through It
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
What does perfection mean to you? Never making any mistakes? Always doing things “right”? Meeting an unreasonably high standard that began when you were a child set by someone who may have been following a legacy of excessive expectations laid out for them by their elders? For the clients who sit on the love seat in my office as well as this woman who has had four decades of experience as a therapist, it is all of those things and more. I have heard folks confess that they don’t want to risk failure, so they do nothing, paralyzed with fear of misstep. Some share with tears in their eyes that they were ridiculed by teachers and parents, bullied by peers and are at a seeming loss for what to do to resolve the dilemma.
I recall an experience that occurred at least 15 years ago, as I was sitting in the office of my psychologist friend Dr. Murray Needleman, having a conversation about the death of my husband a few years prior and the fear that I would never be whole enough to move forward in my life and relationships. He leaned in and with his twinkly eyes, asked “Can you be enough AS IS?” Taking a deep breath, I responded “I guess I have to be.” He smiled and asked again and this time I answered that I could. I went home and printed those two words out on a sheet of white paper and hung it up in my office in the acute care psychiatric hospital where I was employed at the time. When my patients would ask what it meant, I would tell my story. It was helpful for them to know that I sometimes struggled with insecurities and doubts as they did. When I left that job to move on to one at a community mental health center, I put the paper in the box with other papers and books I took with me. When I unpacked at the other end, I saw with dismay that the sheet had gotten crumpled. I thought to re-print it and then reconsidered as I laughed at the cosmic joke and put it on the new wall AS IS. All these years later, it is still my growing edge. There are times when I feel torn and threadbare from life getting lifey as a former client would describe his own twists and turns. Murray died last year, and I honor his ingenuity and heart.
As I age, (turning 61 in a month) I am noticing a dichotomy. There are times when I look at my body and view roundness where I wish there was flatness; abs that see the gym 3-4 times a week are not as cooperative as I wish. Unlike many my age, I have no problems with the wrinkles that greet me when I gaze in the mirror. I see them as laugh lines that I have earned. Like my clients I wonder what standard I am attempting to meet. Not even sure what a perfect 61- year- old would look like. What has been helpful is an exercise that a friend who (like me) teaches Laughter Yoga, created. Called I Love My Body, it is a call and response chant that begins at the top and works its way around and down. “I love my head. I really, really love my head. Thank you, head.” I offer it in the day care centers where I teach 3-6 year- olds, but also with my adult clients in my practice, if they have body image issues. They say that they feel silly, but humor me and by the end, they are smiling and laughing. It allows us to see the value in each body part. When clients say that they don’t like how they look, I ask them what each aspect does for them. The feet they think are too big, provides a foundation on which to stand and a means of walking the world. The backside they consider too big gives them a place to sit. The hands that bear short, anxiety gnawed fingernails helps some create beautiful art- work. Reframing works wonders.
Our cultures tell us that perfection is unattainable, that only God is perfect. But, what if we are, as many spiritual teachers offer, ‘God in a body’? Then wouldn’t we, even with all of our woundings and wonderings, be perfect too? That doesn’t invite arrogance, because when you recognize perfection in yourself, you see it mirrored in the eyes of all those you encounter…they’re perfect as well. And what about all of that ‘life stuff’ that happens…the marvelous and the messy…what if it is perfection-reflection.
One of my favorite concept to explain perfection in imperfection is known as Wabi-sabi.
Per Wikipedia, “Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West”. “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be Wabi-sabi.” “[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
Social worker, researcher, author and speaker Brené Brown breaks it down simply, “The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting, but as hard as we try, we can’t turn off the tapes that fill our heads with messages like “Never good enough” and “What will people think?”