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.”
“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