Overcoming the Need to be Perfect

As we launch into the New Year, some of you may find that you are already faltering in your resolve to leave 2013 behind and find the new you in 2014.  There is no doubt that change can be difficult.  In part this is because any change involves loss.  Change implies letting go of something in order to embrace something different.  That means the loss of something even if that something is just an attitude.  In fact, sometimes an attitude can be the most difficult thing to let go of.  Especially if it is something that you believed in.

Trying something new often awakens a fear that we might not do it right.  Even if the new activity is designed to help us relax, like yoga or meditation, we worry.  Suppose we’re not doing it right?   Won’t I look bad in a class setting?  I will stand out and everyone will sneer at me.  This fear can cause us to set up road blocks like “I need to be in better shape first” or “when something outside myself changes, then I’ll be able to start”.  You know the drill.  We’ve all done this.  The problem is when you depend on something outside of yourself to change before you can change, then you are at the mercy of situations you cannot control.  Of course, there isn’t much in our lives that we can control (contrary to popular belief), but one thing we can control is our attitude.  Until you make a decision that you really do want to change, it is unlikely that it will happen.  Regardless of what happens in the world outside yourself.

If your desire to change is conflicting with your belief that you need to be perfect, perhaps you might find some solace in a recent Yoga Journal article by Sally Kempton entitled “Making Peace with Perfection”.  After describing herself as a “recovering perfectionist”, she provides some insights into the meaning of the term itself.  Here are some excerpts:

“In Sanskrit, one of the words for perfection is purna, usually translated as fullness or wholeness.  .  . . Contrast that to our ordinary idea of perfection. In our everyday speech, the word perfect means flawless.  . . . When we can’t make things perfect, then there must be something wrong with us or the world.

The irony is that our ideal of perfection—which arises from the ego’s need to explain and control—inevitably keeps us from the experience of perfection. Like any construct, it clamps the lid on the bursting, chaotic, joyous mess of reality, substituting a rigid, artificial notion of what is appropriate or beautiful.  Conditioned as we are by our upbringing and culture, most of us can’t help living under the tyranny of perfection. Yet perfection itself is not the tyrant. It’s our notions about perfection that tyrannize us. When we’re outside the experience of perfection, we long for perfection while idolizing a standard that separates us from it. When we’re inside it, the question “How can I keep this great feeling?” instantly removes us from the feeling we’re trying to hold onto.”

Although Ms. Kempton admits that not all perfectionism is destructive, for example, there are musicians, scientists and athletes striving for excellence, this is not the case for most of us.  When creating road-blocks to change, our notion of perfectionism is often “driven less by the pursuit of excellence than by the fear of what might happen if [we] fail. [We] measure . . . performance by the approval and validation [we] get from external [sources].”

But take heart – there is hope!  Ms. Kempton goes on to describe a path for even the most determined perfectionist:

“Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained way of being. And since it affects our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions, getting rid of negative perfectionism requires work on all these levels. It helps to have a quiver of strategies, so you can experiment and work with the one that works for you in the moment. Negative perfectionists nearly always hold themselves to unreachable standards. Then, when they fail to meet them, they beat themselves up. So remember, the first line of defense against perfectionism is to learn how to give yourself permission to be who you are and where you are. That level of permission, ironically enough, is often the best platform for change.”

Here are a few of the suggestions in the “quiver of strategies” she provides:

1)      Retrain Your Inner Critic – Find a positive counterstatement for every negative statement the inner critic makes. It may take a little time, but in the end you’ll retrain him.

2)     Allow Yourself Not to Be the Best

3)     Give Yourself Permission to Do the Minimum

You are all encouraged to read the rest of the suggestions in the article itself.  But I will add something that is incorporated in all of the ideas presented – recognize that you are enough just as you are and that everything you need to succeed is already within you.

It may not be easy to remind yourself of this, but as obstacles arise in your plan to implement change, rather than just accepting them as inevitable, perhaps you can undermine them and find a way to follow your intentions.  Just think how good you’ll feel when you actually begin to see – and be – the change you want to happen.

Finding Opportunities to Practice

It’s that time of year again. The time when we participate in gatherings that may or may not inspire joy.  Sometimes we do it just because we feel obligated.  Or maybe it’s something we’ve always done so tradition (or, perhaps, inertia) is the motivator.  Often these gatherings turn out to be better than we anticipated.  Almost never does something turn out the way we expect it to.  But sometimes dealing with certain relatives or other attendees at various functions can be a source of exasperation.  We may be subjected to opinions we don’t share or rituals that annoy us.  When confronted with situations like this it may help to remember that these are prime opportunities for practice.

First, we can practice gratitude.  In an article in Tricycle magazine, Judy Lief, a Buddhist teacher, wrote about the “mind-training” teachings of Atisha, an Indian who lived in ancient times and proposed 59 slogans for preparing the mind for service to others, compassion and loving kindness.  In connection with slogan 13:  “Be grateful to everyone”, Ms. Lief writes:

“Instead of appreciating what we have, we keep focusing on what we do not have. We are filled with grudges and resentments and have strong opinions about what we deserve and what is our due. We may be taught to say “please” and “thank you,” but what have we been taught about appreciation?

In our commodified world, we see things as material for our consumption. We don’t ask, we just take. And in the blindness of our wealth and privilege, we don’t see how much we have to be grateful for. We take all that we have for granted and we live in a very ungrateful world.

This slogan assumes that we at least have basic gratitude for the good things that befall us. It then challenges us to extend that feeling of gratitude to include not just gratitude for what is positive, but gratitude for the negative also.

According to this slogan, we should be especially grateful for having to deal with annoying people and difficult situations, because without them we would have nothing to work with. Without them, how could we practice patience, exertion, mindfulness, loving-kindness or compassion? It is by dealing with such challenges that we grow and develop. So we should be very grateful to have them.”

It’s worth adding that we live in a pretty unforgiving and intolerant world as well.  A little extra tolerance goes a long way at any time of year, but particularly now when we are celebrating peace on earth and good will towards all.

Here’s another idea from Tricycle, this by  Susan Moon, the editor of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship:

“If you have friends or relatives with whom you disagree about such things as the war in Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be painful. Practice deep listening: Listen without arguing, and try to hear what the other is really saying, remembering that . . .  all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. . . . If we human beings are going to stick around on this earth, we need to learn to get along not just with the people who share our views, but also, and more to the point, with the people who get our goat. And remember—we get their goat, too.”

We will probably never convince these people that we are right, just like they will probably never convince us that they are right either.  And after all, who among us really knows what is “right” or what is “wrong”.  The only thing we really know is that every choice has consequences.  For me, the key point here is that “all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering”.  We all have our own irrational fears.  Once upon a time everyone was a baby.  Each of us came into the world without expectations or knowledge.  We may have genetic conditions that influence who we become, but much of our lives is a product of the environment in which we find ourselves.  Our arrival on the planet is an accident of birth for which we have no responsibility and over which we had no choice.  I reflect on this frequently.  We all make choices, but we also have to play the hand we’re dealt.  It might help to remember that when responding to difficult people.

But all of this is solemn stuff at a time when we are supposed to feel joy.  Of course, we shouldn’t need a special time of year for joy.  Every day is an opportunity for gratitude.  So maybe just for today, count your blessings and forget about your perceived shortcomings.  We’ve now passed the Winter Solstice so every day will have just a little bit more daylight.  Here is one more quote from another Tricycle article to inspire us to celebrate the light, this one from Zen Master Sheng Yen:

“When a candle is lit in a dark room, it illuminates the room to some extent, but its power is limited. But if you use the same candle to light another candle, the total brightness increases. If you continue to do this, you can fill the room with brilliant illumination. The idea of transferring merit to others is like this. If we keep our own light selfishly hidden, it will only provide a limited amount of illumination.”

Let us all shine our lights!  Happy Holidays to all!