Change has been the topic of several of my blog posts lately. I figure that it’s on the forefront of your mind, if you’ve taken the time out of your busy day to read a blog about psychotherapy. If you’re like me, you want to change so that you can have a better life — a life that works better, gives you more happiness, and helps you find more peace.
But if we really look into it, our pursuit of “a better life” — just like “change” — is a tricky business. It’s easy to get carried away with it, even in therapy. In our efforts to improve ourselves, we can get trapped in the pursuit of perfection. We can mistakenly believe that our limitations and imperfections are obstacles to our mental health, happiness, and peace of mind.
How many of us have imagined that if we were better looking, we would be happier? Perhaps for you it would be smarter, stronger, richer, funnier, or thinner. The pursuit of perfection can get pretty subtle and unnerving in therapy, too, especially a long-term therapy like psychoanalysis. It’s easy to get drawn into a misguided effort to become a perfectly functioning adult: always knowing the right thing to say, never getting our feathers ruffled, easily finding an ideal work-life balance, and never ever again getting drawn into our old worries, preoccupations, bitterness, or conflicts. Both on and off the couch, I have shed my share of tears anguishing over my imperfections and wanting so much to overcome them, to be done with them, frankly, to get rid of them.
It takes a lot of hard psychological work to realize that our pursuit of perfection is in vain. First of all, no one is perfect, no one has it all. And second, even if we could be perfect, it wouldn’t get us to where we really want to go.
You see, a healthy, happy, and satisfying life is based essentially in love — loving relationships with others, and even a loving relationship with ourselves. And at its root, love has very little to do with perfection. It is, as they say, a horse of a different color.
This wisdom is conveyed so beautifully in the children’s story, "The Velveteen Rabbit," a tale that is both simple and profound. It has captured the hearts and minds of generations since it was written by Margery Williams in 1922. If you don’t know it, you’ve got to read it.
The story is about a little boy who is given a stuffed animal for Christmas, the Velveteen Rabbit. While it is a soft and lovely rabbit, it does not have the appeal of the more expensive, mechanical, and fancy toys in the boy’s collection. So it is soon forgotten, overshadowed by the other more exciting toys in the boy’s nursery.
The Rabbit, however, makes friends with another long forgotten toy, the Skin Horse, the shabby veteran of the nursery that had been the favorite toy of the boy’s uncle many years before. One day, as the two stuffed animals are discussing the Rabbit’s inferiority complex, the Skin Horse shares some wisdom. A toy becomes real if its owner really loves it.
Williams writes, “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”
Oh, I just love this next part. “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
With the help of the wise Skin Horse, we begin to get it. We begin to understand that perfection may be fancy but it isn’t real and it certainly isn’t love. In some ways, perfection doesn’t encourage love either. In fact, it often discourages it. Like the Skin Horse suggests, the easier you break, the sharper your edges, the more you need to be carefully kept, the harder it is to love and be loved — and the harder it is to love yourself. Perfection has a kind of unexpected fragility. It doesn’t have the sturdiness needed for the rough and tumble of an ordinary, happy, and real life.
One of the capacities that we hope to grow in therapy, as well as in life, is acceptance. As much as there is value in changing for the better, there is also value in accepting ourselves as we are. A balance is needed; change and acceptance go hand in hand. If we grow to accept and love ourselves as the real, ordinarily good people that we are, then our efforts to change have the right orientation. No longer the pursuit of perfection, change becomes a self-improvement project built on a foundation of love.
Copyright 2014 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.
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This post is drawn from chapter four of Jennifer’s newly released book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out. Check it out!