Are You Too Hard on Yourself?
The one insight that may cure perfectionism.
Posted Mar 31, 2017
I had crossed a line, broken the trust beyond repair. My friend was furious and scolded me on the telephone. I admitted that I had done of what I was accused. Judging from her rage, my misstep was so huge, had there been a cross, she would have nailed me to it. My knees got weak, my breathing shallow, my voice meek: “I am sorry, I did not know. Had I known how much it meant, I sure wouldn’t have done it.” Too little, too late. She would not be able to forgive me. My punishment was eternal condemnation, and for the next 24 hours I accepted it and burned in hell. I cried my eyes out. How could I have been so bad, selfish, and thoughtless?
We were young and slightly dramatic — the crime was that I had borrowed, without first asking, a bag to which she felt attached. While my friend later apologized to me for overreacting, it is my own overreacting that I find of interest. As I grew older, excessive drama turned into subtler inner suffering upon doing or appearing to do something wrong. I learned to defend and protect myself on the outside (let’s call it assertiveness training) and rationalized my hurt away from the inside (cognitive therapy). But meanwhile, secretly, I continued to display fundamental aggression when it came to my shortcomings, giving myself tiny little brain punches for not being quick-witted enough, strong enough and independent enough. The only remedy for “not being good enough” was trying constantly to self-improve.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to transcend the status quo and attempt to become the best person we can be. In fact, people who think of themselves as wonderful often lack the necessary insight that forms a complex and compassionate character; they tend to brag, blame others, and feel entitled (see “5 Ways to Stop a Bragger”). On the other hand, many of us clearly overdo it and beat ourselves up for everything, which is an obstacle to becoming a Mensch. Being too hard on ourselves is withdrawing love from ourselves. We would not be as critical with our friend, would not zoom into the bad and blow it out of proportion and would not be disappointed so readily in a close friend’s apparent weakness. (Learn more here.) It is as if we lose the capacity to love unconditionally when it comes to our own selves, somehow splitting off kindness when confronted with a part of ourselves that is less than perfect.
And here is the crux of the matter: We are prone to seek perfection in a world that suggests that perfection is possible. We look up to high ideals; unreachable role models from Jesus to Buddha; moralistic and religious stories; fairy tales that split the good from the bad and the Beauty from the Beast; and last, but certainly in the US not least, the advertisement industry that bombards us with must-have products that elevate and perfect us, wiping off any flaws from our faces, masking our lines, offering anti-aging therapy to turn us back into the beautiful people we never felt we were.
We cannot "unsee" all products and promises or "unhear" the stories that differentiate so clearly and authoritatively the light from the shadow. Even when we try to turn our backs to the value system of our childhoods, we cannot deny the influence it has on us and on the people we meet day-in and day-out.
So, what is there to do? Ironically, seeking perfection led me to understand that the best person I can be is the one who accepts imperfection. I cannot be more lovable than when I face and embrace my vulnerabilities. It is possible to relate to my good and bad sides with the same kind attention, supporting myself unconditionally no matter what. As we can look at a tree that is and becomes at the same time, we can look at our being and becoming as two sides of life.
As my Zen master, who refuses to be called a master, used to say, “You are perfect as you are, and can need a little bit of improvement.”
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© 2017 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.