Guest Author - Erin Kelley-Soderholm, M.Ed.
When I frown, complain, or otherwise lose touch with my positive side, my friends tease me about emotional awareness, the benefits of smiling, or one of my other upbeat article topics. I get their point; it’s funny to think that my writing could cause people to imagine me as a smiling, Buddha-like guru, the perfect model of mental health and enlightenment. And that image isn’t entirely false… I do smile a lot. And I believe in the benefits of mindfulness, awareness, and a positive attitude. But you know something that I don’t believe in? Perfection.
Do I sound a little defensive? I am. The truth is, while I claim that perfection is a myth, part of me still expects that I can and should be perfect. Yes, there is some degree of social expectation to be at our best all the time; I detect a touch of challenge in the good-natured ribbing of my friends. But the real challenge resides in my own mind, in the pressure that I place on myself.
Here’s how it looks for me when I’m not so self-aware: on a low energy day, I push myself and demand accomplishment. I keep a mental list of what I’ve done that day, which inevitably won’t measure up to my expectations. Or when a bad mood comes, I fight it and try to act as though everything is okay. Now, I know I’m not the only one who does this. Yet although these “downs” are normal parts of our energy and temperament cycles, we hide them away like shameful defects. Why the pressure to be— to appear—so perfect when we’re doing the best that we can?
Obstacles and uncertainty are a natural part of the self-improvement process. Being honest about our vulnerabilities deepens the value of this process by setting more realistic expectations and connecting us to one another. That’s why I include examples of my own experience in my writing. When we acknowledge our shared weaknesses and common humanity, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief because it’s safe to be ourselves. And in accepting our own fallibility and lack of control over external circumstances, we can more readily accept “what is.”
Despite perfectionist expectations from within and without, the real objective is to keep pushing our growing edge. To allow space for growth, we can use a daily practice (such as meditation, journaling, or prayer) as an opportunity to slow down and peacefully check in with ourselves. These practices expand our capacity for acceptance when we use them to let go of thoughts about what we should be in favor of appreciating what we already are.
I use meditation to focus on gratitude or repeat a positive mantra. As I practice it, I reactivate the positive, accepting parts of myself. Writing is another practice I use to let go of perfectionist ideas. In my writing I explore ways to live a full and balanced life— as tools, not as standards to which we should compare ourselves. Writing functions both as a practice that enhances my awareness and as a reminder of my ideals. Any wellness practice—even reading and writing about self-improvement— keeps self-validating concepts fresh in our minds and hearts.
I am a long way from Buddha-like equanimity or enlightenment, but I try to learn from Buddhist teachings. One of those is to relieve suffering by removing desire. Perfectionism is a desire for the impossible. Acceptance is the ultimate antidote to perfectionism. Through a mindfulness practice, we develop the ability to accept what we are rather than what we think we should be.
When self-criticism and perfectionism seep into my consciousness, I remind myself that I am a learner, not a master of these ways of life. I refocus on gratitude, positive intention, and the benefits of the process itself. I practice, and then I practice some more. Practice will never make perfect. But I can be content in the knowledge that, for me, practice IS perfect.