against perfection ( + the art of being whole)

 

 

“To move toward perfection is to move out of life.” — Marion Woodman

I was in the middle of a yoga session and I was in a bad mood. It was one of those moments when you just want to tell off the poses as if they were offensive party guests: Get away from me, downward dog. You, triangle, go screw yourself. And you, headstand, have we learned nothing from our problematic encounter three days ago?

Finally I confessed to the teacher, “I’m annoyed with myself because my weight crept up, and I’m having trouble letting it go.”

She asked quite reasonably, “How much did it creep up?”

“About a pound.” Saying it out loud enabled me to hear how ridiculous it was to be trapped in this loop of thinking. “It triggered this wave of self-loathing, like I’m a total personal failure and will never achieve my goals. Which is incredibly stupid, but –”

My instructor, who is also a therapist, said, “Control.”

“What?”

“It’s about control.”

And yet, I’m not a control freak (just ask my ex-husband, who found my house management skills fairly traumatizing). I have never struggled with my weight or battled an eating disorder. My relationship with food is only mildly dysfunctional. I work out because I like to work out – and exercise, like writing, helps even out the moodiness that runs through my family.

“If women took all the intellect and mental energy we put into obsessing over our bodies or our romantic interests (or lack thereof),” a woman said to me, and I have been guilty on both counts, “and redirected it into other areas, think of all the problems we could solve, how much we could accomplish as a gender.”

But we don’t.

I’m not exactly blaming us (how could I? I think we’re fabulous). We grow up amid a social and historical legacy that still teaches girls, in a myriad of ways, that being a successful female is all about curbing your appetite – for food, yes, but also for sex (or else you’re a slut) or money (or else you’re a golddigger) or power (or else you’re power-hungry) or ambition (or else you’re selfish) or knowledge (or else you’ll seem smarter than boys and they won’t want to date you) or professional accomplishment (or else you’re intimidating). If we show too much emotion, we are crazy and hysterical. If we’re too honest, we’ll offend someone or hurt someone’s feelings. If we show any anger at all, we’ll get labeled as out of control.

You know how it goes.

Be successful…but not so successful that you’re too big for your britches. Speak up…but not too loud, or too often. Lift weights if you want…but not so much that you’re a freak.

From early childhood on, the unsaid, underlying threat is the same: or else nobody will like you, want you, love you. And since the ancient, primal brain equates social exile with death – which, once upon a time, it certainly was – on some unconscious level we perceive that our very lives are at stake.

We learn to put an upper limit on ourselves.

We learn that we’re not supposed to go for greatness.

We’re supposed to be perfect.

I’m a huge fan of Chris Guillebeau and I attend the World Domination Summit. I love the messages there: You don’t have to live your life the way that other people tell you. Go big! Follow your passion! Trust your instincts! Believe in yourself!

There’s nothing particularly new about these messages, which doesn’t make them any less valuable (and the way Chris presents and executes is inspiring in and of itself). What I’ve noticed, though, is that once you shift from the WDS crowd of men and women, to a crowd composed solely of women, the conversation changes.

Suddenly it’s about having it all (as in: we probably can’t, so better not to try). It’s about finding balance. It’s about making it a point to lean in in the first place.

When I went to a mostly-male conference that Tim Ferriss held in Napa Valley a few years ago, the level of ambition and confidence in the room was through the roof. (In fact, at one point someone in the audience practically accused Tim of not being ambitious enough, because he doesn’t make information products for his audience.)

When I went to an all-female event for aspiring solopreneurs a few weeks later, the leader spent the first hour discussing the meaning of profit motive. The underlying message was: Money is okay, and it’s okay to want to make it.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good and important conversations to have. But where is the conversation about female greatness – what it is, or might look like, or how it follows its own timetable (different from men), or how it fits into the world (and could reshape it)?

I think of personal greatness as the happy outcome of a full and meaningful expression, over time, of your dharma: the identification and development of your natural gifts, the pursuit of mastery, the application of those gifts in the real world to solve problems and create value, meaning and beauty. This is not only good and healthy for the world, it’s good for us: dudes like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle inform us through their teachings that in order to find happiness, you have to live at your highest potential, and not just once in a while but moment to moment. The greater the gap between what we’re capable of doing/being — and what we’re actually doing/being — the greater our depression, our sense of anxiety, our feelings of disconnection from life, light and love.

Of course, no one can give you a blueprint as to how to self-actualize. You have to listen for your vocation – which, as Parker J Palmer points out, stems from the Latin word for ‘voice’, as in the voice of your life. Your life does not speak from any external source. It speaks through you, and from within you: it is your intuition, your creative or nonverbal intelligence, your higher self, your soul, driving you to wholeness. Wholeness includes not just work, but relationships – including children. When you deny someone the right to both meaningful work and a rich life of relationship – when you force them to choose – you distort their very soul.

The pursuit of perfection isn’t about following the voice of your soul. It’s about the pursuit of outside validation, and the shame that accumulates when you don’t get enough of it. It’s about seeing yourself not through your own eyes, but the eyes of some audience, real or imagined, that will condemn you for ‘allowing’ your weight to creep up by a single pound.

The soul-voice is about growth, exploration, risk, adventure. The soul-voice takes you out of your comfort zone to the places where mistakes are made, you often fall on your face, and life becomes challenging and messy. The soul-voice fills you up. It expands you. It enables you to take ownership of your life, even (or especially) when it drives you to do the things that scare the crap out of you.

When we pursue perfection, we have to shut this voice down, or carve it out entirely. This leaves a ragged void that we try to fill with our attempts at perfection, and when those efforts aren’t enough we insist that our loved ones meet the same impossible standards in order to fill that void for us.

This rarely leads anywhere good.

I sometimes wonder if so many of us are as tired, discouraged and as burned-out as we are – not because we’re trying to have it all – but because we’re trying to have it all perfectly. The perfect careers, the perfect bodies, the perfect families, the perfect relationships, the perfect homes. It’s exhausting, and not least because the quest for all this perfection turns us inward – to focus on ourselves and our families, and to shoulder all the blame for when perfection doesn’t happen.

A quest for greatness, however, turns us outward. It doesn’t just force us to ask ourselves who we are and what we do – but also who we are meant to serve and how we’re meant to serve them, what that audience wants and needs and how their interaction with us ultimately transforms them. Greatness doesn’t close out relationship, but depends on it; greatness doesn’t happen inside us, but in the spaces between us and other people, us and the world, us and the call of our times. Those are wild spaces, unpredictable spaces, that will not be controlled. Releasing the need for perfection allows you to step more fully into them. Releasing the need for perfection allows you to know what you want – what your soul-voice wants – and just as importantly, what you can afford to let go.

After all, you don’t have to live your life the way that others tell you.

Maybe it’s great to be perfect.

But it’s better to be whole. click to tweet

Oct 2, 2013
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22 comments · Add Yours

Thank you. Just…thank you :)

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Too Many words, I could not focus…. a pound??? How crazy are you……Keep it to the Point. You sucked me in the first paragraph and glassed my mind over while my eyes rotated to the back of my head Thanks Oooh Yes forgot… we are all born/created incomplete, UN-whole. Our only real task in this life, is to achieve wholeness. It is a journey froth with many diabolical bad routes which one can get lost and waste life’s time…..like in this article you wrote……Learn to be still and be observant…. till you see and know your incompleteness.. Get some sleep Call me in the morning.

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Thank you Rachel! Best to you.

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That was a hyper badass post. I could give a rat’s hinney as to whether or not the specifics apply to me, but holy jeez, talk about stripping it bare and and the courage to be so honest about your fears and thoughts and accumulated wisdom — there it is. All of it. My hat’s off to you.

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Very well put. Yes and yes.

When I read inspirational stuff, it’s the “go for greatness, spread your eagle wings to the sky and let your energy soar” which makes me feel like I’m expanding from my core and into the next village, not the “it’s ok to want some money and be a mommy too”. (which I’m not, but you get the idea)

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Dear Justine,

This part of your post:

<>

triggered an “Aha” moment with a concept that I call: “The Pause that Refreshes”, or “The Space Between the Thoughts”. I’ve seen repeatedly how my relationship with the Pause changes my day. All too often I feel controlled and forget that I have The Pause in which to make my decisions. But when I do use The Pause, then it’s all me growing and thriving.

In the book: _First Things First_ by Stephen Covey, Covey devoted a chapter (9) to the “Pause”. He says that the quality of life depends on what happens in the space between stimulus and response. It’s a moment of choice that is a moment of truth. A testing point of our character and competence. In this moment, some of the factors that are acting on us (often unconsciously):

– urgency
– the social mirror
– our own expectations
– the expectations of others
– our deep values
– our operational values
– our scripting
– our self-awareness
– our conscience
– our fundamental needs
– our wants

These are our social links and drivers. The Pause then, is a precious moment- even those smallest pauses in response to a stimulus. With grit and over time, those small conscious choices build to create an integrated life, where we recognize ourselves as a force of nature, following our own hearts and minds on a particular path. The ‘Aha’ you gave me then, is how necessary are the spaces. Thank you.

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Your blog has a funny parser! what should be between the brackets in what I wrote above is this wonderful quote: “Greatness doesn’t close out relationship, but depends on it; greatness doesn’t happen inside us, but in the spaces between us and other people, us and the world, us and the call of our times. Those are wild spaces, unpredictable spaces, that will not be controlled.”

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As always, thanks Justine, this really resonates with me and couldn’t be more accurate.

@kmfalk

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I think that is why yoga has become such a big part of my life recently. It really re-inforces the notion that perfection is a lie. There is no “correct” or perfect way to execute a pose. The only correct way to do yoga (as so far as I have been able to tell) is to listen to your body, be present and breathe. This present mindful awareness of what your true self is telling you allows you to be wholly you. Which in turn makes you better as you deal with others out in the external world. What is internal becomes external – as above, so below.

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@Melissa Agree totally. Yoga is really teaching me to tune inward, to become aware of the old destructive thought patterns looping through my head, which in turn allows me to release + rescript them. It’s also teaching me the miracle of showing up, breathing deep, letting go — and then suddenly something shifts, something opens, you can reach a little more and bend a little deeper. That’s been a great lesson to transfer to my writing — it’s like I’m up at the edge of prose, but if I breathe and relax and give it a moment, some new insight opens up and I know where to go next.

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@Amara Graps the pause that refreshes! yes, absolutely. in that pause is freedom.

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Yes. I have worked this year to re-brand my biz and have focused so much on “the application of those gifts in the real world to solve problems and create value, meaning and beauty.” I’ve realized along the way that not only is the awareness of this process good for my marketing efforts, but really it is at the core of my whole life. Of everything. How am I connecting with others is the reflection of it all – including my internal conversations. Thanks for this post – love how you have elucidated this crucial process.

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Yoga is always an awesome metaphor for life :)
And yes, the harder we ‘try’ the harder it gets.
One badass post. Thanks Justine!
Xx Miriam

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perfectionism is my ruin. But the thing is, I honestly don’t give a shit what other people think. It took some work to get here, mainly repeating “what other people think of me is none of my business” like a mantra in my 20’s. I judge myself (too harshly) against my own standards of how I should be. Like I’m not allowed to love myself because I don’t make enough money, etc. Mainly work stuff, but it really pisses me off that I’m old enough to have new beauty issues to think about on top of all the other things about myself that render me inadequate in my own eyes. The whole world could shower me with praise and adulation, the change/love has to come from within.

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Of course it has to come from within (and by the way, praise and adulation stroke the ego, but if you don’t value yourself to begin with, you can’t receive or open up to anything that doesn’t fit with your own poor self-image. Adulation isn’t love, as any famous person who ended up addicted or depressed or suicidal will tell you). But it’s not either/or. There are a lot of factors that contribute to anyone’s poor self-esteem — and perfectionism is very much a symptom of poor self-esteem — and they won’t all be internally generated. For example, we compare ourselves to the people around us — which is why, as Malcolm Gladwell writes in his latest book — it’s the ‘happy’ countries (with the populations that report the highest level of happiness) that also have the highest suicide rates (when you’re depressed, and you’re surrounded by happy people, it’s going to make you more depressed). You say you don’t care what the world thinks of you, but who and what are you comparing yourself to? And why? Where exactly are they coming from, these standards that defeat us and make us so miserable? And why are we so vulnerable to them in the first place? And if we *know* that the change/love has to come from within, how come we still can’t or don’t make that happen? What is it that we still need in order to do so? …We can be aware of the external structures that work for or against us without being ‘victimized’ by them. When you’re aware of something, you can work to change it. In any case, best of luck to you. Perfectionism is a tough adversary, but it doesn’t have the best of you. :)

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First, if your concern over your weight is for purely aesthetic reasons, let me assure you that you have nothing to worry about. I have congenital heart disease. At some point, the docs will have to replace my aortic valve. My cardiologist wants me between 160 and 170. This past summer, my weight’s crept up to 190 from 180. We can’t focus on our failures. Just have to keep pushing.

Also, everything you write is amazing. I wish more young women and girls read your blog. The girls I went to college with we’re so disappointing. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, intelligent, talented, amazing people bury their gifts so ardently.

Is it really so strange for a man not to be attracted to airheads?

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Here’s a bit of serendipity. I’m reading The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck To Success, and, of course, have come across perfectionism as a major cause of becoming stuck. Near the end they write about “satisficing” as a way of getting past the notion of perfect. They go into the roots of this madness in Western culture — the Hebrew part of the Bible we call the Old Testament (no religious intent implied). “There is no direct translation of the very English word perfection…it’s time to expose their false origins. For example, the original Hebrew word used in many familiar Bible phrases such as ‘perfect sacrifice’ is spelled in the Western alphabet as tanam. It’s more perfect translation is ‘healthy’ or ‘whole’ or even ‘as it should be’…The Bible is really telling people to be ‘whole as they are,’ not to be perfect…Only then can you start to get better…Accept yourself as whole, and you can begin to change bad habits into peak behaviors.” I thought this was interesting, especially viewing bad habits as OK things that stand in the way of peak behaviors. It’s also interesting to come back here and see more discussion on yoga, which they also cover in this book as a current phenomenon people are turning to in droves as a way of undoing the knots we’ve gotten ourselves into. During a time when print publications are disappearing, Yoga magazines are on the rise. I can’t do yoga but have practiced t’ai chi for over a decade. It’s taken me two years to realize I can now practice in my own backyard in absolute privacy and peace, really flowing with the nature around me. Two years! It’s amazing how deeply sunk into mindsets we can become.

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Funny how no one asked us men to “have it all”. Once the lid of suppression was lifted from the image defined by “Leave it to Beaver” the pendulum swung too far the other way. If you have balance, then you can venture out without putting yourself in a vulnerable position. Trying to have it all is not balanced, but trying to have what you really want and need does balance all the pressures of practicality.

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There’s an argument that no one asked men to “have it all” because men aren’t held to nearly the same parenting standards that women are. Men aren’t expected to run the domestic sphere as well as achieve professionally. The pendulum hasn’t swung too far the other way; maternity leave is still crap in this country, for example, and the search for good daycare can be a struggle to the point of being crippling. Asking women to have to “choose” between family life and meaningful work is unfair — and unnatural, since women are hardwired just as much as men are to seek status and security for their families (and let’s not forget that most women have to work *anyway*, they’re just doing it for lower pay in jobs with fewer opportunities) — not to mention that every human being has the innate right, and urge, to seek out authentic and creative self-expression, autonomy, mastery.

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Hi Justine, I have only recently discovered your blog and wanted to say thank you for sharing your thoughts so openly.

Coincidentally I came across this TEDx talk by Cheryl Hunter which compliments many of your thoughts in this post and is summarised by the concept that it is our many unique facets of imperfection that reveal our true magnificence. I thought you may enjoy this if you have not already encountered it.

http://youtu.be/V1gxziZwmkc

PS: I live in Sydney, Australia and hope you enjoyed your time in Wagga Wagga some years ago.

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Achieving perfection isn’t possible with imperfect tools: our bodies and our minds.

And yet we keep trying.

All I want is for the part of my brain that should naturally cut off interest in food – my chinchilla has it, and won’t eat more treats after the switch kicks on – to work properly.

I wonder if it was actually there when I was born – like Gizzy’s – or whether I have never had one.

Self-discipline is a poor substitute – though that is what I have to use – because it requires the continual input of willpower. I have CFS – willpower is necessary to get my teeth brushed (most days)!

I do feel your pain over a pound – it isn’t the size of the gain, it’s the treachery of the body in allowing it.

If I had to apply the same amount of willpower to making my heart beat continuously, or to forcing each and every breath, I wouldn’t last long – why should I have to be in control of input/output balance in the digestive system?

As for the mastery – tell that to the years I spent acquiring the PhD in physics so I could actually use that lovely brain – I think there might still be some of it left under the brain fog (I use it to write, most days).

Tain’t fair that we can’t have it all at the same time, is it? I don’t think men do, but then I think of the focus that leads to things like the Bay Bridge and the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal – and I get a little envious. Those guys didn’t have to fight their bodies’ innate cycles just to get some work done. They faced huge physical dangers and dangers to their families – but none of them carried a kid inside them for months.

I just would have liked to do some of those things. Or even the one I trained for.

Thanks for the mind-opening posts.

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I found myself resonating very strongly with “what girls are taught”: don’t be too ambitious, don’t be too strong, don’t want money. As a boy, I always felt like I needed to compensate for the limitations placed on my mother and sisters, so maybe I internalized those things in an attempt to be a “nice guy”. Thanks for bringing those points to light.

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