The Koan Of Illness


personal development Mar 09, 2022

Perfectionism starts very early in life. 

 Our parents probably had fixed ideas about how we should speak, what we should wear, and what we should eat. Maybe they wanted us to be a banker or a priest or nurse. Maybe we were handed down a political point of view or a religious tradition. It’s likely that we inhaled these ideas wholesale and diligently worked to make ourselves into someone who would make our family proud. 

 Or maybe we rebelled against our parents’ ideas and just as slavishly adopted ideas of other people. Whatever our new heroes did or wore or said or thought – that’s what we wanted to do or wear or say or think.

 Maybe you were more thoughtful about what role you wanted to play, what rules you wanted to follow. Perhaps you crafted your own idea of who you wanted to be. That is pretty admirable, but it can still lead to perfectionism because once we have any idea of what is the “right” way we be, we set out to be most perfectly that.

What is your goal in life? To be a perfect copy of someone you admire? To be a perfect creation of your own? Or to be an imperfect but authentic self?  Many of us might say we prefer the latter, but we seem to put an awful lot of effort into being one of the first two.

 Let’s think about being the perfect copy for a moment, because that’s what many of us do.  We don’t actually know ourselves very well (except just enough to know that we’re not good enough), so we pick out some examples of what is good enough and create an artificial life form made of them that we can step into.

We parade this model around, hiding deep inside it, hoping that others see only the outside.  We touch it up regularly by making sure it reads important news stories, hangs out with the right people, and gets to be an expert in areas in which it is supposed to excel. In addition to wanting it to show off well, we also want to avoid having it get out of control or do something to embarrass us, so we monitor it constantly. This is a full-time job. 

 It is also a useless job. It appears we have one shot, at least with this particular incarnation, and yet we spend half our lives trying to be someone other than what we are, whether that someone is other-determined or self-determined.

 There are many reasons for this, of course, all forms of conditioning.  As a child we want to be loved.  As an adult, if our social group rewards certain things like wealth or education or rebellion or charitable work or nihilism, we will strive to become the best at this that we can be (something of a challenge in the case of nihilism J ). Or perhaps we are so done with all that, so against conditioning of all kinds that we strive to do the opposite of what is expected of us. Sadly, being oppositional is just another form of not being ourselves. 

 So how do we escape this hall of mirrors?

 Let’s assume you don’t want to turn yourself into a carbon copy or an anti-carbon copy. Once we discover that we are just living out roles, we often strive to become authentic. But getting beneath our conditioning is difficult, especially if all the pressures in our life are pointing us away from such self-investigation. Even if we have a supportive environment, self-discovery is a life long journey which involves a lot of willingness to see ourselves clearly and determination to allow that self to flower.

 Once we embark on this journey, we may worry about what will happen if we are not acceptable as we are. What if we find we want to do and be something very different from what we had thought we should be?  Will we be a societal outcast, unable to make a living, unable to find friends and romantic partners? That, of course, is another layer of conditioning to wade through until we are comfortable with our differentness and can integrate it into a meaningful life.

 Unfortunately, this inner search can also be coopted by our perfectionism. I am going to change all my bad habits. I am going to express myself as the real me. I am going to eradicate my ego. I am going to fifty workshops in the next two years, I am going to read forty self-help books, and I am going to join seven support groups. I am going to free myself from all my conditioning.

 Or, we can go beyond that, too, and let go of our concern with being anything at all.

 I spent an evening with a friend of my husband who was an expert in body language, spoken language, facial expressions, and everything that can reveal a person’s deepest self.  It dawned on me that therefore whatever move I made or word I said would tell him something about me.  For the first moments, I felt utterly paralyzed. I noticed that I moved my hand to my face – oh dear, what was I revealing? I wanted to say something about an experience I had had, and I realized he would know everything about me if I did. I thought perhaps I would remain expressionless and silent, but then realized that that, too, was an indicator of my insecurity and fearfulness and self-absorption. It was if I were stuck in glue, until suddenly I realized that it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, I was going to be revealing myself in every moment.  So, I dropped it. It was the only thing to do. I gave up trying to monitor myself.  It was one of the most freeing moments in my life. I could just be me and the hell with it because that was what was going to show anyway.

 Bob was an expert, but most of the time, others pick up on our cues pretty well. We are much more obvious than we realize. Most of us know if someone is trying to pretend they know more than they do, or is angry and trying not to show it, or is trying to be liked. Even if not everyone knows, there is usually someone around who does, possibly because they themselves have been working with the same kinds of fears.

 My ex-husband liked to say, to my great annoyance, “Excuses only satisfy the people who make them.” But it’s true. In the same way, trying to hide our imperfections also only satisfies the one who’s doing the hiding. It’s like a cat sticking its head under a chair and thinking we can’t see it, while all the time the back end and long tail are saying, “Here I am.”

 Most of the time, we might think we are fooling others but, unless we’re a practiced sociopath, someone who lives to manipulate others, we are probably not. Also, most of the time when people can see through our games or fears, they are somewhat sympathetic. After all, they know what it’s like.  

 So, the question arises, what are we getting out this subterfuge, this attempt to become inhumanly above reproach in every way?

 Perhaps we hope it will bring us money or status or acclaim or respect or love or self-esteem. If we impress the right people we might get these things. The question then arises, are we being loved for ourselves or for an image? An uncomfortable thought.

 But I think most often, the person we really are trying to convince is ourselves. It’s really our own self-image we don’t want to let go of. If I have the idea that I am intelligent, loving, knowledgeable, competent, classy, socially adept, and so on, the person invested in keeping that image is me. God forbid that anyone should see me being abrupt and unkind, or not knowing the answer to a question, or doing a presentation with errors in it, or wearing something dowdy, or saying something stupid in a social situation. Others don’t expect me to be perfect (unless I’m doing something that reflects on them in which case their own perfectionism might get projected onto me). Actually, most people don’t want me to be perfect. It’s very hard to be around people who are perfect.

 So, if you’ve decided you don’t want to be an imposter, living out a storybook image instead of being real, and you don’t want to be a person constructed out of a patchwork of ideas you’ve picked up along the way, then who are you going to be?  If it’s the real you, you need to get to know who that is. This can be a long and often painful – and never ending – process through which you discover, as all of us do, that you are not perfectly competent, perfectly kind, perfectly accomplished, a perfect conversationalist, a perfect lover, a perfect parent, a perfect employee, a perfect friend. You’re not even the best at what you do the best – at least most of the time.  Each time you notice, really notice, one of these imperfections it can feel like a dagger to the heart. How can I bear this? What can I do to hide it? I’m such a nothing, useless, mediocre, unlovable, and so on. How can I show my face? 

 Modern culture has brought us a lot of benefits, but it has also brought us the most impossible models for our behavior. If we’re a pianist, we’re not trying to be better than the local church music director; we’re trying to be better than Horowitz. If we’re in business, we’re not trying to satisfy our small-town customers, we’re trying to be another Bill Gates. If we’re in sports, we want to be Olympians or NBA stars. 

 So, what to do? 

 First, be realistic about what you can accomplish (in terms of product or appearance). 

 You think you can finish your taxes in one afternoon. But you are forgetting that you will probably have to search through files, maybe order another copy of a statement, go online to figure out what the heck alternative tax is and how to use it, and so on. 

 You think you can create a painting that will be worth thousands and gain the acclaim of the art world. How often does that happen? Work hard to make it good but allow yourself to be happy with something nice enough to give to your elderly aunt. 

 Okay, you say, I won’t be salesperson of the month this month – I’ll be second or third.

 Once you have a more reasonable estimate of what is possible, cut even that in half.  Give yourself two days to do the taxes or give them to someone else. If you’re wrong in your estimate and you finish early, what a delightful surprise! If you’re not wrong, you have saved yourself a lot of self-flagellation. Tell yourself you’ll be ok if you just finish the painting – it will be good practice. Let yourself be fourth or fifth in the sales line – at least you will have sold something! And remember that you will continue to improve. As Anthony Robbins says, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10.”

 Second, give yourself deadlines to curb your perfectionism.  I have exactly one hour to finish this report. I have half an hour to get dressed for the party. I have ten minutes to decide which humidifier I’m going to buy. Set a time. If you find yourself going over that time, make a note of it.  Then come back a week later and ask yourself how much difference it made to spend the extra ten minutes, hour, ten hours. 

 Did It really make it better? If so, then you know that you need to set timelines that are more realistic. Remember lesson one and give yourself two hours for the report, an hour to dress, twenty or thirty minutes on the humidifier.

 Did it really not make a difference to take more time?  Write that down and post it in a place where you’ll see it. “My report was not significantly better because I fussed over it for an extra two days.”

 Third, stop worrying about the outcome.  Do what you’re going to do and let fate determine how it is perceived. As Annie Lamott commented in Bird by Bird (an excellent book for perfectionistic writers), “God, I’ll take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”

 It is one thing to make an effort to do something well, to look nice, or to speak clearly.  It is another to be primarily focused on the effect these actions will have on others. If your goal is to write a good article, and you apply yourself to doing that without thinking about whether it’s the last word on the subject, whether your friends will read it and think you are brilliant (or stupid), or whether it Is absolutely the best you could do, you will likely produce something adequate and perhaps even good. If you are focused on outcomes, however, you will likely tie yourself up in knots and produce either nothing or something much less that your capabilities would indicate.

 Says Brené Brown, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” [1]

I wrote my favorite short story as part of a game in which we were given half an hour to write a piece that contained twenty required words (all of them of course bizarre and unconnected).  What plot line could possibly include them all without being absurd? When I finished, it all seemed to hold together, it was funny, and it was something other people enjoyed, too. Expecting it to be ridiculous freed me up to be creative.

 So, let yourself make mistakes. Glorious mistakes. Silly mistakes. Mistakes that make other people laugh. You never know what will appear. Even mistakes that create all kinds of trouble and need effort to clean up can be good for you. Learning is never useless. And, after all, what is life for, if it’s not to experiment?

 Fourth, reduce exposure to situations where you cannot be yourself.  Why take yourself to the social event of the season if it’s going to produce a tortured self-analysis of your social skills, appearance, finances, status, accomplishments, and so on?  There are 7 billion people on this earth.  Choose someone you don’t have to impress.

 If your job is too pressure-filled, ask yourself if the problem is you or the job. If it’s the job, look into changing it. If you are dating people you feel are out of your league, why? Maybe it’s not that they’re out of your league – you’re more likely just in the wrong league. 

 Be with other people who want to be themselves. Be with people who want you to be yourself. People who expect you to strive to meet their standards are not people you want to have as friends.  

 Fifth, ask who wants me to be perfect?  Is it your boss? Is it a reasonable expectation or do you need to have a discussion with your boss about your workload? Is it your parent still speaking in your head? Consider telling them politely to keep their opinions to themselves. 

 Is it you and your idea of your ideal self? Try describing that ideal self in writing. What are its characteristics, behavioral requirements, appearance, social manners? How many hours a day should it work? How much should it produce? How much acclaim should it get? From whom?  Put in anything you can think of. You want to know who this person is that you are supposed to be.

 Now read the description and ask yourself whether you really do want to apply for that job after all.

 Sixth, and most important of all, love yourself.

 The ridiculous twist to all this perfectionism is that the most lovable people and the ones we find it easy to be around are the people who make mistakes and freely admit it, can laugh at themselves, and are comfortable in their own skin whether they’re wearing Dior or a fourteen-year-old out-of-date sweater. They are simply themselves. They can trip over their feet, say something inappropriate, stumble around trying to explain something they don’t understand very well, speak too loudly or too softly, and forget to bring something to a meeting. If they can laugh at themselves, acknowledge their errors, apologize if needed without going into paroxysms of self-flagellation, others are going to like them. So, let yourself be vulnerable but also lovable, be wrong but also be comfortable to be around, be silly but maybe also a source of joy. 

 Love yourself as others might love you – indulgently, with a sense of humor, as a pal. As my friend Terry Patten likes to say, “You are bound to make wrong decisions. Forgive yourself in advance.”  Love yourself when you do something stupid, when you don’t know what you’re doing, when you can’t finish something, when it all looks wrong and bad and hopeless. God knows that’s when you need love, and who is closer by to give it to you in that moment than you are? 

 I’m not at all sure what my life is all about, but it makes sense to me to get the full experience I can out of it. I may not be exactly the person I want to be right now, but that’s the vehicle I’ve been issued this go around and that is its current condition, so even if it’s got some problems, I might as well enjoy it. I might even be able to fix some of the problems with a little tender loving care instead of launching a frontal assault on them or making a quick attempt to paint them over so others won’t see them.

 Now, even though I wrote all this, and I completely agree with it, I still have trouble with my own perfectionism. But I have to forgive myself that as well. I’m human – not perfect –  even about handling my perfectionism. I have to tell myself that being human in fact means being imperfect. Am I never again going to trip and fall?  Am I never again going to say something really off point and stupid? Am I never again going to be rude or irritable or critical? There are no perfect humans. It is not possible as long as we are in these bodies on this planet. 

 So, if you want to be authentic, why be anything other than the beautifully imperfect being that you are?  Can you make that your goal?  To allow yourself just to be ordinary, inexpert, socially awkward, wrong, clumsy, irritable, reclusive, loud, and emotional –  and also brilliant, kind, joyful, insightful, aware, and loving? Can you be your whole self?

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