perfectionism

The joy of imperfection: how not to drive yourself and others nuts

Mona Shah Joshi, Fulfillment Daily: Every year we come up with new year’s resolutions. Maybe to lose weight, to procrastinate less, to write that book or get a promotion. We want to become more “perfect” in some way. And how often have we let ourselves down in the process?

You know what to do, but so often manage to do the opposite. You know you should go to sleep. But instead of picking your body up from the couch, you pick up the television remote. You have work to get done, but spend 20 minutes surfing online for stuff you’ll never buy. You know what to say, but somehow your brain fails to communicate with your mouth and the words come out wrong.

In a perpetually chaotic world, perfectionism appears to allow us some semblance of order and control. As a teen, I couldn’t control my emotions, but I could paint tricolor stripes on my nails to coordinate with my yellow, red and green outfit that day. While I couldn’t control my own mind, I could enhance its development by reading books on self-improvement. I would become a better human being who would one day marry the perfect man and raise perfect children (unlike my parents whose parenting mistakes I fully planned to correct with my own kids).

wildmind meditation newsCutting-edge research shows that there is, in fact, a fine line between striving for improvement, and striving relentlessly for perfection. How do you know if you’ve crossed it? Is your perfectionism doing more harm than good?
Imperfectly Perfect

Perfectionists pride themselves on their integrity and commitment to hard work; they make sure everything is the best it can be down to the last detail. As a society, we admire people who push themselves and others to produce masterful achievements—Steve Jobs, David Cameron and Beyonce among numerous others.

We laugh at the neurotic foibles of perfectionists on television like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation who interrupts her boyfriend’s proposal twice to savor the moment and lets him know, “I need to remember every little thing about how perfect my life is right now.”

But real perfectionism goes beyond arranging your towels in eleven different sections aka Friends’ Monica Geller. According to a study published in a journal of the American Psychological Association, perfectionism can be devastatingly crippling, leading to anxiety, depression and an increased risk for suicide.

Gordon Flett has been researching perfectionism for the last 25 years. “Perfectionists tend to be under chronic stress, in part due to the pressure that is on them,” he observed with me in an interview.

Flett identifies two main types of perfectionism.

1) Self-Oriented Perfectionism where expectations to be perfect come from another person such as a parent, spouse or teacher.

2) Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism where people respond to external societal pressure by trying to appear perfect. These people tend to promote their strength and accomplishments, while hiding mistakes and flaws so others have a favorable impression of them. Meanwhile, inside they feel inadequate “like an imposter.”

Sure, our perfectionism allows us to stretch and create beyond imagined capabilities, but it also handicaps our happiness. The outcome is so important that we forget to empower others by truly letting go (assuming, of course, that we’re able to even delegate). We become experts at faultfinding—a sure fire way to lose friends and diminish influence. Moreover, we get so caught up in the producing the end result that we forget to have fun along the way.
Self-Compassion as an Antidote

Kristen Neff, pioneering researcher and author of Self-Compassion, considers self-compassion the perfect antidote to perfectionism. “Perfectionism creates a sense of isolation, leading to self-criticism. Imperfection is the human experience,” she shared with me. “Self-compassion helps us feel safe, secure, loved and reduces the feeling of being threatened.”

Self-compassion isn’t letting yourself off the hook (akin to not being accountable) so much as giving yourself a break (realizing that imperfections are normal).

Can you imagine how unbearable it would be to live with someone who was totally perfect? This perpetual Pollyanna would turn her pert nose down on your pitiful shortcomings. It’s our mistakes that make us humble. Imagine how intolerable we’d be if we never made a mistake. We would probably be more judgmental, and less empathetic and compassionate. It’s our screw ups that make us endearing, approachable and lovable.
Leave Room for Imperfection

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual leader and creator of the Happiness Program, gently reminds us to “Leave some room for imperfection. It is love for perfection that makes one angry at imperfection. Just like a clean house has a small space for garbage in the bin, keep some space in your mind to accept imperfections.”

We get so agitated thinking about other’s imperfections. You do realize that their imperfections are their problem to handle, right? We already have a full-time job managing our own mind and it’s nuttiness.

Practices such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises help us keep our center and develop some perspective into our perfectionism. These practices bring the mind back to the present, instead of sticking to the past or worrying incessantly about future results. A meditative mind tempers our tendency to go perfection crazy. It enables us to relax and realize that while your hair may be frizzier than a shih tzu, you’re still grateful because, “heck, any day with hair is still a good hair day.”

When we get upset at others’ mistakes, we’re no better than the person who made the mistake. But when we have acceptance and compassion for others, we simultaneously develop acceptance and love for ourselves as well. When you’re fretting that the mashed potatoes are lumpy or the salad isn’t up to snuff, ask yourself if it’s worth losing your smile over.

This new year, instead of resolving to become a more perfect version of yourself, why not unwind and accept? Inner perfection comes naturally when we leave room for imperfection.


Mona is a freelance writer and motivational speaker based in Atlanta. Since 1996, she has facilitated more than 50,000 hours of programs in mind body wellness as a personal development expert and meditation instructor for the Art of Living Foundation and the International Association for Human Values (IAHV). Mona believes that meditation and conscious acts of kindness are key to uplifting human values in society. For more information about the Art of Living meditation and yoga, visit www.artofliving.org. Check out her blog at http://monashahjoshi.com.

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Self-compassion for writers (and other tortured souls)

I was talking to a Buddhist friend recently who’s a wonderful writer. She creates amazing blog posts that usually start off deeply personal but go on to teach important and universal lessons about life. I have a lot to learn from her about combining the personal and the instructional, and in many ways I regard her as the better writer. The thing is, she told me she hasn’t been able to write for two years now, because she’s a perfectionist.

And that’s the problem with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes us anything but perfect, because, for one thing, it makes it harder for us to create. Perfectionism is like teaching an animal to do a trick by beating it every time it doesn’t do exactly what you want. What would happen if you tried to do this? You’d end up with an animal that could only cower in terror. If the animal was sensible it would run away. If it was really sensible it would bite you first. And I think this is what happens with the creative parts of ourselves when we’re perfectionists. We end up training our creative energies not to create, and we produce what we call writers’ block, or (more generally) creators’ block. Our creative urges run and hide. They see the blank page, and don’t dare mar it because the critical part of us is sure to step in immediately and say “Not good enough. Who wants to read this crap? YOU SUCK!”

But perfectionism is just another name for “low levels of self-compassion.” We need to recognize this because I think saying “I’m a perfectionist” is a way of humble-bragging: I won’t do anything unless it’s perfect, ergo, anything I do is perfect. I don’t create, but if I did it would be awesome. But while there are some high achievers who are perfectionists, their achievements come at a price. Perfectionism puts us on edge. It makes us rigid. When we’re driven by perfection we’re less likely to learn through play, experimentation, or trial and error. Self-compassion is where we treat ourselves kindly, even when we make mistakes. We recognize that we, just like everyone else, mess up. We recognize that mistakes are not only inevitable, but that they’re a helpful part of the learning process. To do anything meaningful we need to tolerate imperfection

I guess I’m an “imperfectionist.” A saying that I take as my pole star, my guide through life, is “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” So when I’m writing I just plunge in. I ignore my inner critic and allow myself to mar the page. The first effort may be ugly, repetitive, shallow, confused, or whatever. I don’t care. At least I have something to work with. Only after that initial creation do I go back and make improvements. That’s when the inner critic comes in handy. Your inner critic is an invaluable asset if you give it the right job to do — and that job is to tell you what’s not best about your work after you’ve written the first draft. Its job is not to prevent you from getting started. So I review and rewrite my work over and over, and each time I smooth the clunks out of my writing my inner critic has less and less to say. In the end it just shuts up because it’s done its job, and there’s nothing but good feelings when I read the text.

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Beating yourself up just doesn’t work very well as a motivational strategy, and it has wider consequences for your wellbeing as well. Constantly being on edge in case we slip up, and then criticizing ourselves when we inevitably do, is a tough way to live. People who score low for self-compassion are much more prone to being stressed or depressed.

So self-compassion is a great habit. And it is a habit. It’s something that we can train ourselves to have. Just as with my iterative approach to writing, we won’t suddenly produce full-fledged self-compassion out of thin air, so at first we’ll do it badly, as we do with all things worth doing. But we keep practicing, and get better at it as we do.

So, how do we get started? There are three things areas I’d like to focus on: perspectives for self-compassion, mindfulness, and kindness.

1. Perspectives for self-compassion

Everyone suffers. Everyone finds life hard in different ways. We all want to be happy and not to suffer, but happiness is often elusive, and suffering keeps coming along, often unexpectedly. We all mess up. Being human isn’t easy. These perspectives help us to let go of any expectation that life — and our lives in particular — should be free from difficulties. The also help us see that we shouldn’t expect creative work to be easy. As Stephen King said, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.” Suffering — whether at the keyboard or in any other aspect of life — is normal.

Embrace this discomfort, because it’s through building your shit-shoveling muscles that you’re going to create.

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of awareness in which we observe our experience almost as if we were watching an external event. Being mindful of our experience — and especially of painful experiences — is a critical component of self-compassion.

First we have to acknowledge that there’s pain present, and this isn’t always easy, because too often we believe the stories that spring up to distract us from our pain. So you sit down to write and it’s emotionally uncomfortable. Instead of just acknowledging the discomfort and starting to write, you decide it’s time for a snack, or time to dust the shelves, or to update Facebook. And off you go; the story has won: it’s prevented you from working through your fear. Being mindful creates a gap between the stimulus of discomfort and our response to it, and this gives us the freedom to choose how to act. I feel restless? It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’m going to write.

Mindfulness involves acceptance. In the “gap” that mindfulness opens up, there is peace. It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to feel frustration, to feel disappointed, sad, frustrated, hurt, despondent. These things are not signs that we’re failing, but that we’re human and engaged in the process of living. And when we’re in the act of creating, and we hear the inner critic saying that our work isn’t good enough, we can be mindful of that critical voice and decide not to believe it. Just keep going.

3. Kindness

Imagine you a friend shows you a draft of a short story, and it’s not very good. What do you say to them? “You idiot! You’re so stupid to try to write! No one’s ever going to want to read this crap!”? Of course not. But that’s the way we often talk to ourselves.

Elizabeth Gilbert says that self-discipline is overrated: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you.” It’s by being kind and by forgiving the shortcomings in ourselves and our work that we get better at creating. This doesn’t mean that we recognize that a piece or work is bad, forgive ourselves, and leave it as it is. It just means not judging ourselves as “bad writers” for having written something that’s not yet good. It means treating what’s substandard as a first draft. It means looking at the crap head-on until we can figure our how best to shovel it. We accept imperfection and then go back and rewrite. Then rewrite again. And again.

What’s going on when we’re kind to ourselves is that the most mature and compassionate part of us is showing kindness to the part of us that’s most in pain. Our inner grown-up is comforting our inner child, giving it reassurance. Treating our painful feelings compassionately can be as simple as placing a hand on the part of our body where the hurt is most prominent, and saying “It’s OK.” We can offer reassurance by saying to our discomfort, “I know you’re hurting, but I’m here for you.” That might sound cheesy. That’s OK. I’d rather sound cheesy than be a blocked writer.

So next time you’re stuck on a project, staring at a blank page, or whatever your creative equivalent is, try on for size the perspective that discomfort is an integral — and valuable — part of creating. Have a mindful acceptance of any painful feelings that arise. Stay with the discomfort rather than turning away from it. Offer yourself some kindly reassurance as you shovel the shit.

Creating is hard, and that’s OK. Be an imperfectionist, and just keep doing it badly, at least at first. Because it’s worth doing.

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Day 14 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

Stuart Valentine, who’s participating in the 100 Day Challenge, wrote about how fear of other’s judgements can stop us from getting started:

Being a born pessimist, one of the first things that occurred to me about the 100 Day Challenge was that if I did it, I would have to do it PERFECTLY. And this was clearly impossible, so there was no point trying.

‘Scoring’ just 99 out of 100 would be a disaster. I would feel irritated with myself, embarrassed, would have let myself and others down… and many other negative emotions I projected on to this ‘awful’ event.

If I ended on 90 out of 100, or heavens forbid 89 out of 100, then my life as I know it would be over, surely. Dharma ridicule would follow me the rest of my days. I could see it all in glorious detail.

If I missed a sitting early enough into the 100 days, I might even have to give up straight away! Why continue, now that perfection is out of reach?

Clearly, I concluded, the best option was to not start in the first place.

Despite knowing intellectually that this was a very shoddy way of thinking, I couldn’t shake the emotional conviction of it. So I took to the cushion to thrash it out. One order of mindfulness of body please.

Clearly there was a huge amount of negativity in all this, and unskillful thinking, But I also realised this sort of ‘all or nothing’ mentality is something I’ve been guilty of more times than I can count, almost always to negative or even disastrous effect.

Meditating revealed to me the aversion to making a ‘mistake’, the egotistical craving for the ‘glory’ of having done 100 out of 100 sittings, and the fierce aversion to the pictures I painted in my mind’s eye about how other people would look down on me for missing even a single sitting. I could feel it not just in the intensity and unpleasant nature of the thoughts which kept obsessively cycling round and round, but more importantly in the unpleasant bodily sensations that came with those emotions.100 day meditation challenge 014

Mindfulness of those body sensations gradually took the sting out of them as equanimity slowly won the battle, and the emotions slowly subsided. Sanity was slowly restored.

I could now see the sense in just trying every day, and not being too attached to success or failure to sit that day – just like when doing mindfulness one should keep persistently trying to be mindful, but should try not to be frustrated or demotivated when our mind wanders. The analogy struck me powerfully.

What came through most clearly was that my biggest fear by far was what others would think. I was telling myself all sorts of crazy stories about how ‘everyone’ would think less of me if I missed even one sitting. These stories had a life of their own, and I had so much aversion to them that my constant reactivity kept feeding them, much like a hurricane gets stronger and stronger as it crosses rough warm seas.

I decided to take the plunge, and to face it head on, with as much equanimity as I could manage. Don’t run, don’t suppress, don’t ignore, don’t fight – accept it. Accept the maelstrom, the sensations, the negativity. Accept, let go, equanimity, don’t give up, don’t give up…… deep breath, don’t give up!

It wasn’t fun, but it slowly worked, over the course of several sittings. The calm after the storm is always beautiful. For now at least, I can face the prospect of missing a sitting with something like a genuinely balanced mind.

No doubt the aversion to making a mistake will return. Old habits die hard. But next time it does, I’ll be better prepared.

And I have a quiet confidence that next time it will be that little bit weaker, too. Progress… however small, I’ll take it! Maybe the ratchet away from suffering just got moved another notch.

If nothing else, working through all this has gotten me to 10 sits out of 100! And the reduction in tension and stress from weakening these negative ways of looking at the situation means that I am now less likely to miss a sitting.

But if I do miss one, or WHEN I do, I think i’ll be able to take it my stride, and not let it stop me completing as many of the rest as I can.

Thank you for sharing your wise advice, Stuart!

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Lay your burdens down

On the path of life, most of us are hauling way too much weight.

What’s in your own backpack? If you’re like most of us, you’ve got too many items on each day’s To Do list and too much stuff in the closet. Too many entanglements with other people. And too many “shoulds,” worries, guilts, and regrets.

Remember a time when you lightened your load. Maybe a backpacking trip when every needless pound stayed home. Or after you finally left a bad relationship. Or just stopped worrying about something. Or came clean with a friend about something that had been bothering you. How did this feel? Probably pretty great.

Sure, we are no longer nomadic hunter-gatherers whose possessions could be carried in one hand. You know what you really need in this life; personally, I’m glad about good friends and a full refrigerator. But all the extra physical and mental stuff you lug around complicates your life, weighs you down, and keeps you stuck. There’s enough weightiness in life as it is without adding more.

Putting this subject in a larger framework, consider the Hindu idea that God has three primary manifestations: Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. I can’t do justice in this brief space to this view, but the simple notion that works for me is that there is a lawful and beneficial principle in the universe that is about pruning, emptying, completing, and ending.

This positive “destroying” – very broadly defined – enables creating and preserving, like exhaling enables inhaling, or emptying a cup of something bitter enables filling it with something sweet.

Dropping loads enables lightening up.

How?

In general: Lay your burdens down. And rarely pick up new ones.

Now the details: Pick some place of storage – like a bookshelf, drawer, or corner of a closet – and clear it out of everything you no longer truly want or absolutely need. Give it away or throw it away. Notice how this feels – both anxiety and positive feelings.

Sometimes we fear we will sort of blow away in life if we don’t have a lot of stuff. Then focus on the positive feelings and open to a sense of reward in dropping things you don’t need. Keep going with other stuff you don’t want or need, both at home and at work.

Take a hard look at your obligations, responsibilities, and tasks. Maybe write down a list. Ask yourself: do I really need to do all of these things??! Open to that voice of wisdom in you that’s telling you what you can afford to drop. Open to a sense of freedom and autonomy: you get to decide what makes most sense to do, not the “shoulds” yammering away inside your head. Decide what you can give to others to do – and get them to do it. Decide what you could stop doing, whether others pick it up or not.

For a period of time (a day, a week, a year), do not take on a single new major obligation. Regard all new activities, events, and tasks as “guilty until proven innocent” – toss them in your backpack only if you are certain you truly want to or absolutely have to.

Consider your relationships. Which ones feel weighty, entangled, encumbered? Then consider what you could do about that. Could you step back? No longer engage certain topics (e.g., intractable health problems, conflicts with third parties, the past)? No longer perform certain roles (e.g., problem-solving, quasi-therapist, dating advisor)?

Take a look at your mind: what weighs it down? Guilt about long-ago misdeeds? Needless anxiety? High, perfectionistic standards? Grumbling anger? Grievances? Passivity, lethargy? Doubt? Taking yourself way too seriously? Whatever it is, for a brief period of time – half an hour, half a day – totally drop it. At the first whiff, drop it. See what that’s like: probably pretty great! Then ride that great wave of relief and lightness and continue dropping those lead weights in your mind.

Overall: if in doubt, throw it out.

Play with feeling lighter in your body. As if you are lifted up by invisible helium balloons. Lighter in your step. Your head lighter on your shoulders.

Lighter in your heart.

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Meditation as an antidote to perfectionism

Notre Dame Observer: Competition and perfectionism are prevalent issues at Notre Dame — often much more serious than they are considered to be, three experts said Monday evening.

The Gender Relations Center presented “The Fighting Irish: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” as a part of their Signature Series in the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library. The lecture featured Daniel Lapsley, chair of the Psychology Department, Rita Donley, associate director of the University Counseling Center and Sondra Byrnes, a guided meditation instructor who is also a professor in the Mendoza College of Business.

Lapsley focused on the psychological explanations of perfectionism.

“There is a basic theme that perfectionism is a disorder or defect,” he said. “A perfectionist seeks and strives for unrealistic goals, evaluates stringently and self-censors against unattainable standards.”

According to Lapsley, the three developmental accounts of perfectionism share a common thread: interactions with demanding, perfectionist parents. In these three explanations, parents belittle their own accomplishments and respond with anxiety and disappointment to their children’s mistakes. The child perceives this response as rejection, he said.

“Many psychologists contend that a normal perfectionism exists,” Lapsley said. “However, large differences exist between this normal and neurotic perfectionism.”

Several scales of perfectionism, developed by various psychologists, attest to these differences, he said.

Donley discussed her experiences with perfectionism in the Counseling Center.

“I see a difference between a goal-oriented person and a perfectionist,” she said. “The goal-oriented individual studies hard for a test and is happy with the grade they receive, while the perfectionist crams and crams and is ultimately disappointed to learn that their friend received a higher score than they did.”

Donley said many students base their self-esteem on what they do or accomplish and, in turn, place a great deal of pressure on themselves.

Students need to realize that they can’t do it all and learn to cut themselves a break somewhere, she said.

“In my mind, perfectionism sucks the joy right out of life,” Donley said. “In the end it is our connection to other people and our quality of life that is the most important.”

Byrnes focused on the value of meditation in coping with perfectionism and competition.

“Mindfulness is a potentially refreshing and restorative approach,” she said. “It is the idea of being present in the moment.”

According to Byrnes, more than 40 percent of Americans of all faiths practice meditation at least once a week.

She led a meditation exercise to demonstrate that virtually all forms of meditation require only four things: a quiet place, a stable posture, a non-thinking attitude and a focus on breathing.

“Meditation aids in recognizing the moment-to-moment reality,” Byrnes said.

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