Perfectionism is a disease among my patients. People’s inner dialogues these days are unrelenting. The irony of all this is that the more perfect someone might seem on the outside, oftentimes the more broken they are on the inside. It takes a ceaseless, judging superego to maintain the veneer of perfection to the outside world, and any sort of crack in the crevices of one’s soul proves that one is messing up. Some of my patients with critical inner dialogues never give themselves a break, regardless of their success. If they publish a novel, it’s not good enough because it wasn’t published by a major label press or didn’t win any awards. If they get into graduate school, it’s not good enough because it wasn’t the best school in the country.
I often ask myself: Why are so many suffering from this perfectionism? There is no doubt that perfectionism is a defense, but a defense against what? Well, like a lot of defenses, perfectionism begins in childhood. While many parents set high expectations for their children, even “good enough” parents—to borrow a phrase from the psychologist D.W. Winnicott—are not immune to pushing their children and praising them for their achievements. Even an innocuous statement like “I want you to be happy” can send the wrong message to a child. You may say I’m picking nits here. How can saying you want your child to be happy be imperfect parenting? It’s simple: Saying you want your child to be happy implies that if a child doesn’t feel happy, then they are doing something wrong. Subtleties like this can lead to a more judging mind. In contrast, if you tell a child that it’s OK to feel whatever they feel, it allows them to freely express who they are.
Our society is another reason perfectionism reigns supreme. The truth is that in the modern economy we are in competition. Capitalism breeds it, encourages it. The free market, according to some, is a meritocracy, and unworthy corporations or people get weeded out. To put it another way, only the strong survive. Whether we realize it or not, this attitude is embedded deep in the American psyche. As a result, we naturally feel competitive with our peers. I can’t tell you how many of my patients cannot celebrate the successes of their friends and peers, as it inevitably makes them feel envious.
Social media encourages this competition as well. The rise of influencers is an extreme example of this: people paid to show a fantasy lifestyle that in no way resembles reality but unconsciously gives us an example of what life should look like (even if we reject what we’re seeing). It’s sort of like junk food. Sure, in small doses it’s fine, but if you eat it every day you’ll start to feel sluggish. Operating on a more subtle level are the prosaic everyday social media posts: videos and photos of your friends having fun. This can be a great thing, to see what people in your life are up to, but again, like junk food, if you consume it constantly, it will start to have negative effects on your psyche of which you probably aren’t even aware. Many of my patients have unprocessed expectations of what their lives should be based on the social media they consume. (I try to encourage patients to consciously consume social media and follow therapy-like accounts that encourage self-reflection.)
There is little correlation between a person who is well-adjusted and a so-called perfect life. That poses the question: What does a well-adjusted person look like in this society? For me, it is someone who can accept their life and feelings just as they are. This is where my Buddhist practice becomes helpful. One of my favorite Mahayana Buddhist phrases is bodhicitta, which can roughly be translated as “awakening mind.” It describes the soft, tender core of beings, the part of us that is open and vulnerable, the part of us that we try to cover up day-to-day to survive. Bodhicitta encourages us to make friends with our vulnerabilities and our deepest pain. It means that every moment is a chance to awaken our hearts just a little more, and to grow with self-love and compassion for ourselves. Inevitably, if we can give ourselves self-love, then that love eventually extends out to all the people in our life.
It is important to define what “self-love” is, however. It is not the praise of our parents or society for “doing well” or “achieving.” It is not the easy victories of vanity or being beloved by the outside world. And it is not those Instagram posts that encourage self-love through more material consumption. Those things feel good, of course, but if one’s self-esteem is built on external conditions, then one’s self-esteem inevitably collapses when those conditions are taken away. Self-love means letting yourself fuck up and embracing that. It means acknowledging the mess that we are and being OK with it. It is a kind and gentle attitude toward one’s self. It means allowing ourselves to feel whatever we feel without judgment but with love and attention, with the tender, soft heart of bodhicitta. When we allow this to happen, we can feel actual joy in life. As I’ve said before, “doing” stops being the lens through which we see the world. We can just be, just as we are, imperfect beings of light.
In my own life, finding an intelligent, compassionate psychotherapist was incredibly helpful in exploring my own “awakened mind.” So was quitting social media. But most importantly, meditation helped transform my attitude toward myself. Lama John Makransky’s teachings on love and compassion were particularly instrumental in helping awaken my bodhicitta.
With some practice, patience, and kindness toward ourselves, we can start living each day with a little more openness. And maybe that openness is the antidote we need in today’s complex and competitive world.
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