There’s No Such Thing as Perfect

“I’m a perfectionist,” is one of the most popular answers to that dreaded interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” It feels safe because, while we realize that being a perfectionist can slow us down, we also admire people that strive for excellence in this society. We make movies about people that single-mindedly pursue being the best against incredible odds, and we revere the slightly mad innovators. If you don’t believe me, just consider Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and Amelia Earhart–just to name a few.

However, the pursuit of perfection has a dark side. First of all, perfect doesn’t exist. There will always be someone who can do things better than you can. There will always be someone smarter, more educated, richer, prettier, and more talented. Years of practicing a skill can make you an expert, but it will never make you perfect. There will always be more to learn, and new innovations to master. Therefore, perfection is the proverbial carrot on a stick that you can never quite reach. The minute you achieve the goal you had set for yourself, is the minute you realize there is more to do and learn.

For example, in my younger mind, completing my master’s degree in psychology was the most wonderful thing I could accomplish. Years of study, writing papers and taking exams finally culminated in the proud day of my graduation. I was thrilled, and then I realized that I still couldn’t work as a therapist.

Instead, there was a new goal–to get my license. Five years after graduation, I accumulated 3,000 intern hours and passed two state board exams, I could finally call myself a licensed therapist.

That was incredible, until I started working more complicated psychological cases and realized that I still didn’t have the expertise that I needed to help people in the way that I wanted to, and they deserved. So, I started completing additional certifications. Now I realize that I will never be finished learning how to be a therapist. There is no perfection.

If I beat myself up every time I was presented with a patient that I didn’t understand, or was asked to perform a type of therapy that I don’t have training in, I would be paralyzed by the weight of what I don’t know, and that is the danger of perfectionism.

The very fact that you’re pressuring yourself to be perfect, combined with the truth that perfect does not actually exist, is a recipe for disaster.

It usually begins with parents or teachers who cannot see the value of rewarding children for doing their personal best, and hold them up against a standard that is out of reach. Over time, children internalize the message that they need to perform like professionals when they are only beginners, and they start beating themselves up for all of the mistakes that they make as they try to learn a skill. Instead of seeing mistakes as part of the learning process, they see them as failures. Why? Because that’s how they were taught to see them.

Eventually, the fear of failure overcomes the desire to learn something new, and the person drops the learning process altogether. Even if nobody else is judging the performance, the internal critic created by this perfectionistic society, is so harsh that it seems better not to try than to face its judgement.

How many great artists, scientists or philosophers have we lost because of perfectionism getting in the way? It’s impossible to know. However, I do know this. I am far kinder to myself when I make mistakes than the average person, and it took me several years to start trying to publish my book because I feared the judgment my work would inevitably receive. I still fear it, but I know that I will regret it if I let my life pass by without trying.

I also know that I hear about perfectionism getting in the way of my patients’ lives on a daily basis. One of the most important thing I work on with people is bringing things into their lives that create a life worth living–whatever that looks like for them.

I ask, “If you had a life that felt worth living, what would that look like?” Answers vary. For some it’s finding a partner. For some it’s travel.

Whatever it is, my next question is “What can you do today to begin bringing that into your life?” Usually, they tell me that there is nothing that they can do. It’s hopeless. So, I start throwing out suggestions.

Sometimes people take my suggestions and start making progress. However, much of the time they tell me, “I can’t do that. It won’t work, and it will hurt too much if I fail.”

It will hurt too much if I fail. The fear of that pain is enough to keep people living lives that don’t feel worth living.

Don’t be one of those people.

Instead, change your mindset. Accepting that perfect does not exist is freeing. Why strive to achieve something that isn’t there in the first place?

Instead, here are three simple truths to live by:

  1. The thing that you do is better than the thing that you don’t even try.
  2. Mistakes are not failures. They are part of learning. Each time that you make a mistake, you learn something new that will help you to do the thing better next time. With that in mind, congratulate yourself next time you mess up. You’ve just taken the next step towards mastery.
  3. All that you can do is your best–no more and no less. If your internal critic, or some person in your life finds fault with what you’ve done, simply say, “I did my best.” Don’t expect to be an expert immediately. Just do your best.

Next time that you hear your inner critic giving you a hard time because you aren’t doing something perfectly, talk back to it. Tell yourself that you’ve done your best, and that you are learning from your mistakes and will do better next time. Remind yourself that perfect does not actually exist. It will set you free.

Aligning with the Cycles of Life

Yesterday was Halloween, and even here in Southern California, I can feel a shift in the earth. While the days are still warm, the evenings are cooler. I’ve even needed a sweater a few times. The produce at the grocery store has shifted from summer to fall fruits and vegetables and instead of the happy heads of daisies, I see the yellows and oranges of marigolds and chrysanthemums. Earth is letting go of the fecundity of summer, and getting ready for the cold, quiet rest of winter.

Multiple traditions recognize this time of year as special for honoring and remembering the ancestors–people we have let go of from our lives. Yesterday, in honor of this tradition, I sat for a time and remembered family members who have passed, and I said their names out loud to honor them. It made me feel close to deceased loved ones even though they are gone.

Western society has an uncomfortable relationship with death and letting go. We tend to value youth, beauty, fertility, productivity and accomplishment. We tend to devalue and even ignore age, wisdom, infirmity, rest, and death. I would argue that this emphasis on burgeoning productivity is unhealthy. It makes us value silly things that don’t matter like the size of our waistbands and the amount of hair on our heads instead of valuing the experience of a long life or the need to unplug and let our minds have a break.

A shocking amount of people don’t allow themselves to rest. They feel that if they aren’t producing something at any given time, then they are being lazy. They push themselves to accomplish, to multitask, to show results at all times. Then, if they didn’t get everything on the list completed, they mentally beat themselves up about it. In order to maximize productivity, they start cutting things out of their lives that give them rest and pleasure because they feel those things are a waste of time. As a result their lives feel empty and not worth living. Their bodies are over-taxed and not well cared for. And their relationships die from lack of nurturing.

This is an extremely stressful and unhealthy way to live.

We need to start managing stress in more healthy ways. Instead of admiring people that spend all of their time producing, foregoing rest, and never taking vacations, we need to recognize that people like that are setting themselves up for a heart attack. Literally. Stress changes the way that our bodies distribute and store fat, clogging our arteries and creating heavy bellies. Stress also leads to depression. Our nervous systems aren’t set up for a constant state of go. Eventually they will shut down in order to make us rest–a state we call depression.

We need to get more in sync with the cycles of life in all areas. Instead of pushing Earth to produce even out of season, we need to allow her to rest, just as we need to allow ourselves that same grace. We need to value all of the stages of life, not just youth and beauty, but also the onset of middle and older age, a time when our experiences begin to converge into a wonderful state of wisdom and balance.

We also need to get more comfortable with death and letting go. As painful as it is, we can’t keep all of the people in our lives forever. In a discussion of letting go, I was once asked to imagine if everyone I had ever known or been close to was living in my house. I imagined my exes all living with me–all of my former friends and colleagues, and my stomach churned with the stress of having all of those people around me all of the time. I understood that in order to move forward in my life, I’d had to let those people go, just as they had let me go in order to move forward with their lives.

Just as the Earth has to shed the leaves and fruits of summer in order to rest and regroup for the next season’s rebirth, we have to shed our old selves, our old relationships and our old beliefs in order to move forward. We need times of rest and reflection in order to feel into what needs to change in our lives for our own rebirth. We need times of pleasure, just for the sake of pleasure, in order to feel alive and like all of the hard times are worth it.

I encourage you to ask yourself, what can I let go of today in order to get more aligned with the cycles of life, death and rebirth? Maybe there are material objects that you need to get rid of. Maybe there are people that are holding you back. Maybe there is a way of viewing yourself or the people around you that is out of date. Maybe you need to let go of your belief that productivity is the most important thing in life, and that rest equals laziness.

Change is an important part of being alive. Instead of holding on to the way that things have always been or the way you have always thought, I encourage you allow a time of rest, reflection and letting go in order to move into a brighter and fresher you, just as Earth rests in the winter in order to store up the energy she needs to burst into flower in the spring.

The Importance of Belonging Instead of Just Fitting In

Depressed people often tell me that they spend most of their time pretending to be happy. They feel that they must–that it’s expected of them. They say that they are exhausted by keeping up the pretense of cheerfulness, and that it feels like a mask that they wear to fool the people around them into thinking that they’re “normal.”

Every time someone tells me that they wear a mask of cheerful pretense, the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby pops into my head:

“Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

Clearly this sense of wearing a mask to fool the world is not new or isolated. In fact, I would bet that we all have done it from time to time. Some of us are better at it than others. Personally, I’m terrible at it. When I try to pretend, I come off as cold and stiff, and everyone knows that I’m not acting normally.

Susan David, in her TED Talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” says that “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.” She calls this “a tyranny of positivity.” I agree with her. Somehow pretending to be happy is seen as better than living an authentically felt life, and people are shamed for being “negative,” or displaying emotions seen as “bad.” As a result, people walk around wearing happy faces, but feeling dead inside.

You may wonder, what’s bad about pretending to be happy? Isn’t that the point of “fake it ’till you make it?” The answer is that pretending to be happy cuts us off from authentically connecting with other people, and authentic connection is one of the greatest and most basic needs of human beings.

Below is a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which came up regularly in my college psychology courses. Starting from the bottom of the chart, you’ll see the most basic human needs for food, shelter, water, and clothing. Once those are satisfied, the next level is for safety. Directly after basic survival and safety comes love and belonging, including a sense of connection. Connection is not a luxury–something that might be nice to have one day. Connection is number 3 on the hierarchy of human needs. It’s that important.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background

However, there is a big difference between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in happens when people conform in order to be accepted into a group. Fitting in is that lonely feeling of wearing a face that you keep in a jar by the door. It’s the exhaustion that you feel after pretending to be happy all day when you want to cry on the inside. Fitting in does not fill that basic need for connection. Instead, it makes us feel even more lonely than being alone.

Belonging, on the other hand, is the feeling of ease that you have with a trusted friend. Belonging is the knowledge that it’s OK to show your authentic feelings, because the person that you’re with will understand and will continue to support and love you. It’s only in belonging that the basic need for a sense of connection is fulfilled.

In order to have true belonging, it’s necessary to be vulnerable, and while the idea of vulnerability may be so uncomfortable that it immediately makes you want to stop paying any attention to what I’m saying, please stay with me. This is important.

In her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown explains that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” In order to feel that authentic connection that is one of our basic human needs, we have to be able to take off the mask, stop pretending to be happy when we aren’t, and show our true faces. The longer that you’ve been pretending, the more vulnerable this will make you feel.

When I work with clients on their need to belong, they often tell me that the idea of not pretending is preposterous, and that there is no way that they would allow themselves to be so vulnerable. I tell them that the fact that they had such a strong reaction tells me that vulnerability and the ability to be authentic is where the true work is for them. If you’ve had a strong reaction to the idea of being more authentically vulnerable with people, the same goes for you.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go around telling your deepest darkest secrets to everyone you meet. Being vulnerable with people is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. If there is someone that you think you might like to get closer with, reveal something small to them and see if they can handle it, and if they share something small with you in return. If so, try sharing something a little bit more personal, and so on. Creating true connection takes time, and you should only share your most personal stories with people who have earned the right, and have shown you that they are worthy. This is the way to build authentic connection with people who are safe.

Will there be times that you will pick the wrong person and get hurt? Of course there will be. However, building belonging in your life is worth the risk.

Belonging heals. In tribal cultures, when a member of the group is sick, the entire community takes part in the healing. The whole group comes out and dances around the fire, sings, or talks with the sick person. While these treatments aren’t necessarily scientific, people often do get well simply because the entire group showed up for them. Can you imagine how it would feel if your entire community showed up for you when you needed them?

Because so many people in Western culture confuse fitting in with belonging, and refuse to take the scary step towards vulnerability, the power of authentic belonging has eroded. When people are depressed or sick, they tend to end up more isolated than they were before their illnesses, and their isolation makes them sicker.

I would like to challenge you to examine your relationships. How many of them are based on fitting in and how many are based on true belonging and authentic connection? If you don’t have many authentic relationships, take the leap into vulnerability with the people that you feel have earned the right to it, and start building true belonging into your life. You’ll be glad that you did.