Some habits never die. Unless we do something about them.
“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival”
So it has been with my addiction to perfection. I have clear memories of when I was 10, playing with friends and insisting every little while that we start anew because it wasn’t ‘right’ enough. Tearing pages out of my notebook and leaving a skeletal book because the handwriting wasn’t good enough. Painting over every artistic attempt, even though I had caught the essence of the moment because it wasn’t complete enough. In my pursuit of perfection, nothing was ever enough.
Searching for the Perfect Life
Decades passed. I could have laughed at those memories if not for the fact that they had followed me and embedded themselves in my life, way after they were a childhood obsession. I began my life afresh every few weeks, days sometimes. I was past thirty and life had yet to begin!Then I got into positive psychology, the science of optimal living and human flourishing. It seemed made for me. I was thrilled by its mission to bring out the best in us. I practiced its skills and interventions. I delighted in the visualization of the perfect life and did my best to strive towards it. Then I realized that I was wrongly using it to stoke my own perfectionist agenda.
You see, I had an image of an ideal life before me and thought that positive psychology would help me get there. Perhaps I wasn’t unlike a lot of you. How many of us would not want the best version of ourselves to reflect someone who is not only knowledgeable, but also loving and kind, not only creative but also patient and tolerant, not only graceful but also funny and alive.
A Hurdle Before a Mirage
What I overlooked in my efforts towards my goal was that the path to anything worth striving for is laden with mistakes, with relapses, and with disappointments. In my perfect agenda, I mentally rejected all of those. In my singular focus, I had been oblivious to the forces of emotions, of personalities, and of circumstances. In my craving for positive outcomes, I had essentially left negative conditions no space in my life.However, no life is complete without its share of challenges and setbacks. Faced bravely, they make us emotionally adaptive, arm us with coping mechanisms, and strengthen our resilience. I did not realize it then, but my refusal to accept my mistakes was depriving me of the benefit of learning from them and thus stalling my own growth.
What I had in front of me was not a pathway to self-improvement but a gigantic hurdle before a mirage. I was not only aiming for a perfect version of me, I was giving myself very little space to try for it. No wonder then that I tried the same Herculean task of overnight transformation and failed again and again and yet again. An ant could have done better than I did!
The Alternative: Self-Compassion
Nor did I realize that my refusal to accept myself as I was and cheer myself for my efforts was incubating me in a pit of criticism. Nothing good ever comes from there. My refusal to acknowledge my own negative traits and accept my less than upbeat emotions was closing me down in shame and disappointment.
Had I practiced self-compassion instead, I would have been able to embrace my whole self even when I failed. Through unconditional love, I could have found the strength to do the right thing. With no space in my life nor in my heart for the negative, I was continually engineering my own downward spiral.
I have learned these lessons over time. Positive psychology and experience have changed my outlook on life. I continue to practice the habits of a good life everyday. Sometimes I make gigantic strides and sometimes I fall flat on my face.That is fine. For no baby learned to walk by receiving a beating for its tumbles or taunts about the perfect stride. Sometimes I feel eager and excited, and sometimes I feel nervous and disappointed. But I accept that too. For I have ignored my emotions long enough, confusing them with my own identity. Now I know better.
Our true selves lie beyond the momentary experience of emotions and past the temporary craving of outcomes. The true me is Rumi’s Guest House and emotions are my guests. I need to give them space. They come for a reason and leave when ready.
I have also learned that the best version of me is not one that is perfect, but one that is human, hopeful, fallible, energetic, and emotional. It is the version I have come to accept, love, cherish. I strive to do my best not only because things are going well, but also despite it. That is the essence of positive psychology.
Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. Hudson Street Press.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.
Waterman, A. S. (1992). Identity as an aspect of optimal psychological functioning. In G. R. Adams, T. P. Gullotta, & R. Montemayor (Eds.), Adolescent Identity Formation (Advances in Adolescent Development) (pp. 50 – 72). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Wong, P. T. P. (Ed.) (2012). The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications, Second Edition. New York: Routledge.
Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Painting courtesy of patricio villarroel bórquez
London closed because of snow courtesy of Lars Plougmann
Hurdle courtesy of studio curve
Baby learning to crawl courtesy of Janet McKnight
Homaira, I appreciate your article very much. It is helpful and realistic. Thanks a lot, Maria
Terrific piece Homaira – and what a relief! I was initially drawn to PP precisely because it offered small step changes, plausible effects. The correlation between the three blessings habit and the reduction of depression was and is about the same as the correlation between smoking and cancer – important, long-term, slow and not inevitable. I love your analogy with learning to walk. It is such a brave endeavour, all that falling and bumping and such a tribute to human motivation. And great to see Rumi quoted. Thank you Homaira for this real perspective.
Thank you Maria and Angus! Yes Angus, perfection makes us see only the final product (and an unreal one at that) – but the way to it is so less than perfect! It takes a great deal of self-compassion to forgive ourselves the bumps and falls, else we dream big but stay put and set ourselves up for a downward spiral of unhappiness.
Isn’t Rumi the best – so much wisdom expressed in such a beautiful way!