Written by Ellen Sanders
“As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success,
we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves,
nor will we find compassion.”
– Pema Chodron
I have a close friend who I think is wise. She doesn’t think so. In fact, she would laugh if I said it to her and say, “If that’s so, why do I keep trying to learn the same lesson over and over again?” And here’s the reason why. She, like me, is in addition to other things, a recovering perfectionist. Those of us with this “affliction” often feel like failures even if there is evidence to the contrary. Our minds create a continual catch-22: we are human and yet, for us, to be human is to fail. And while we would never expect others to live up to the standards which we place on ourselves, our perfectionism can cause problems in our relationships because of the toll it can take on our self-esteem.
This trait of self-judgement while at times can be motivating, is essentially destructive. For the past decade plus, I have taken pains to try to overcome what in many respects is a defect of my character. I have forced myself to make little mistakes and live with them. I have tried new things: yoga, meditation, and prayer being the most important. These practices were completely new to me and I was challenged to start slow, be patient with my progress, and with regards to yoga specifically, approach the mat each day anew knowing I wasn’t going to do every pose exactly right. This has sometimes been stress-free and sometimes haunting, but it has always resulted in liberation.
Further, I have surrounded myself with people who are also trying to grow and heal. This wise friend I mentioned above is one such person. And let me tell you why I say she is wise. Today I was with a group of women (my friend amongst them) and we were discussing self-acceptance and how challenging it can be to achieve and maintain it. My friend said, “I know I can’t hate myself into change.” Now, I have heard her say this before, but today it permeated me. Because lately, my perfectionism has been making me say hateful things to myself, not all the time, not even every day, but it’s happening. These thoughts can eat away at the self-esteem I have been building since getting sober. In that moment after she made this statement, I thought to myself, “Enough. I will not shame myself anymore.”
My friend then went on to say how she realized that it is her duty to really learn this lesson so she can pass it on to her children, specifically her older son because he is so much like her. She and I on so many occasions have talked about how our oldest children resemble us and it scares us. As if there’s not enough fear in being a parent, I (and she) fear our children having a harder time in life because of the characteristics they got from us, specifically our perfectionism and sensitivity, not to mention our propensity towards addiction. Fear, I have learned, can either dominate me or teach me. It can scare me into trying to manipulate, change, or control a person/situation, or I can use it to love and accept that person/situation. What my friend said she has decided to do is to meet her son on their common level. When these characteristics come out and result in difficult behavior, she’ll tell him she understands him and talk to him about how she deals with those feelings instead of trying to guide him into to being different. Because really isn’t that what we all want – to be understood and accepted?
My friend’s vulnerability and honesty today gave me a tool for dealing with my perfectionism. I can love and connect to those characteristics in my daughter to teach her to be ok with herself, and perhaps in the process continue my own healing. Now, I realize the concept of relating to a child on his/her level is not revolutionary. I’ve certainly come across it in parenting books numerous times. What I have not encountered before is using it in relation to “unattractive” personal traits one has that your child also possesses. I have learned it in a new way and can therefore apply it anew. And maybe if this characteristic is accepted instead of shamed, it can become a strength instead of a flaw.
Whenever I think of self-acceptance, I think of one of the most important moments in my life. It was one of those times that peace washed over and through me. My daughter, who is now six and is the mini-me I referred to above, was about one year old. I was rocking her to sleep for her nap and I looked down at her and saw true grace. And I thought to myself, She is exactly who she is meant to be. She is not perfect, she will have struggles, she will make mistakes, but that is good. And then I thought, If she is exactly who she is meant to be and god entrusted her to me, then I am exactly who I’m meant to be. I am not able to always live in that moment, but I can be grateful that I had it. I can draw strength from it and know that those words I thought and felt are truth.
So to my friend and those of you like us, I say, maybe some lessons take longer to learn than others and maybe that’s ok. That doesn’t mean we’re not making progress. The way I see it, we’re always having new experiences, new challenges, new hurdles and each one will trigger our fear and uncertainty. We can approach each with previous knowledge gained, expand on it, put it to prayer, and then let go. And when all else fails, we can call each other because we get it, we understand.
Photo courtesy of Lija Geller