Is your life is all neatly sorted out? Perhaps it is more of a work-in-progress, but do you have a notion of the perfect life that could be yours one day?
But what if that desire for perfection is not helpful? Wanting everything to be perfect can set up unrealistic expectations that create discontent and even distress. Let me make the case for embracing imperfection.
Perfectionism can reveal itself in different ways. We may, for example, hold ourselves or those around us to unrealistically high standards. This can lead us to becoming judgemental and stressed. Alternatively, we may be overly concerned and anxious about others' expectations of us – or what we imagine they expect. Underlying perfectionism lurks a view that life could and should be free of difficulty if only I, or others, could just 'get it right'. It’s an outlook that readily leads to blame, or the shame that may arise when we feel that we have ‘got it wrong’.
Discrepancy monitoring is the tendency to contrast an image of how life 'should' be against how it actually is. This mindset can sometimes be spotted in background judgements and comparisons that we would not usually notice. It is a key feature of low mood and depression, as one judges one's life to be a failure based on a comparison with an ideal life.
Rationally, it is not hard to see that expectations of perfection are delusional: life inevitably includes difficulty. It is obvious that we are not perfect ourselves and nor is anyone else. Life unavoidably includes unpleasant aspects such as illness, loss and difficult relationships. It cannot, in its nature, be perfect all the time.
However, the way we see the world is not an entirely rational business.
Evolution has hard-wired our brains to avoid threat and seek opportunity, which proved an effective survival strategy for our ancestors living in the wild. For contemporary humans no less than for hunter gatherers, the enticement of a life devoid of threat and full of opportunity is an attractive one (a fact of which the advertising industry are keenly aware).
A deeper recognition that imperfection and difficulty are indeed part of life can be something of a shock. Curiously, though, this insight need not be disheartening. In fact, it can bring a sense of relief, as we understand that life is messy and this is normal. Letting go of striving for perfection opens fresh possibilities to appreciate the joys, small and large, that life has to offer here and now.
And while we may not become perfect, we can become a wiser, kinder person. In fact, in accepting the unavoidable messiness and discomfort of our lives, the possibility of a compassionate response to difficulties is revealed. Compassion is, by definition, a recognition of suffering and a kind, helpful response.
The quality of compassion is often understood in terms of how we respond to others. However, in actively cultivating compassion, the first place to look is within ourselves. If our own inner world is characterised by harsh judgements, this will probably be expressed towards others, directly or indirectly.
Self-compassion researcher and teacher Kristin Neff and her colleague Chris Germer have developed a short reflective practice in three stages for cultivating a kinder, more forgiving response to our own difficulties:
Firstly, we recognise painful experience when it arises in our own, immediate experience; simply labelling it “this is suffering”- or, if you prefer “ouch”.
Secondly, we reflect that suffering is part of life, for everyone. Neff calls this ‘common humanity’.
Thirdly, we consciously connect with a compassionate response in which we can meet difficult emotions with patience and kindness.
This transformative practice, called the Self-Compassion Break, opens the possibility of an alternative response to habitual pathways of shame and blame. Compassion-focused courses such as Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living explore a series of practical approaches for cultivating more caring and effective responses to difficulties.
Kristin Neff invites us to practice mindfulness and compassion in a way that fully embraces the messiness of life, inviting us to be a ‘compassionate mess’. We honestly don’t have to be perfect, or burden ourselves with such an unrealistic expectation.
Research has shown that people who score high on self-compassion are less fearful of making mistakes and being rejected; they cope better with adversity; have more understanding and acceptance of imperfections and are also more able to take personal initiative and responsibility.
It is impossible to learn without making mistakes. Could it be that, rather than the dream of perfection, it is our stumbling journey of discovery itself that brings the most life-satisfaction?