It’s OK to not be Perfect
The secret is out: human consciousness has amazing untapped potential. In recent years, people have begun to explore personal growth, positive thinking and manifesting abundance as ways to unleash this potential. Movies like The Secret tell you you can create exactly the life you want, including mansions and millions of dollars. Spiritual health gurus tell people they create their own illnesses and, therefore, can heal them, too. All this sounds positive and uplifting, but there might be a downside to these spiritual manifestos. Do they put new levels of pressure on already over-burdened psyches? Might it be OK to just be human?
“We are all gods, you know. We have so much capacity in our consciousness and we don’t use it. We can do anything. We can heal anything. When we don’t, we’re just not living up to our potential.” This was Gina* speaking, a 42-year-old finance worker who was having problems with anxiety. Wow, I thought, now that’s a lot to live up to. Talk about putting pressure on yourself. If you’re a god, there’s not a lot of room for anything but perfection: brilliance in your chosen profession, radiant good-naturedness and perfect health.
“But what about enlightened teachers who get sick with cancer or something?” I asked. “Everyone has to die, don’t they?” “Oh, but those people still have something missing,” Gina replied. “If you’ve really got it, you don’t die of anything. You just choose when to leave this physical plane.”
Whew. So even enlightenment isn’t enough. One could feel crushed under the weight of such expectation, to say the least. It gets worse, though. I’ve come across a spiritual teacher who says we humans are responsible for the evolution of the universe. Now that’s a tall order. Oops, there goes a star burning out — is that because I didn’t meditate enough last night? I’m being facetious but, really, I find it enough of a challenge managing my own evolution let alone that of the universe.
The tasks in front of us
The problem with telling everyone they’re gods is it’s a confusion of the levels of being. Yes, at the highest spiritual level we might be gods, as in we are all connected and one with the divine creative consciousness of the universe (however you want to describe this). The thing is, as humans we are still in the process of building the container for this spiritual reality. By container, I mean the body is the literal physical container and the soul the emotional and mental container.
The building of this container is what human evolution has been all about. And this process has been going on for thousands of years. In terms of the body, many people are only just beginning to be aware of how to link their consciousness with their physical selves. They’re doing this via yoga, Feldenkrais and other modalities. To get to the stage where you could be aware of and control all the bodily functions down to the last cell, well, that’s a lifetime’s work at least. Until then, you may have to deal with some physical ailment.
Then there’s the soul: our emotions, creativity and intellect. Again, this is a long-term project. Can you train your intellect to be at the service of the higher self and not the ego? Can you bring stillness to your mind at will, bring laser-like focus to things when you choose and maintain equanimity whatever the external situation? Can you bring your passions and ideas to fruition easily? Yes, the mind is capable of amazing things, but so much of this capacity is in our unconscious. And there are many things blocking access to this capacity, especially emotions that aren’t processed.
It has only been in the past few decades of human evolution that people have begun to go to therapy to work with their emotions. To transform every last aspect of your lower nature, every last drop of anger, selfishness and fear, maintaining awareness of all of this, is a big enough task, let alone transmuting it all into healthier emotional expression. Speaking personally, I do this sort of work on a daily basis and I am nowhere near done. And I don’t think it’s because my soul is particularly black. It’s just no small task.
There’s also the matter of how you manage your self interpersonally. Can you maintain presence and compassion while with others both socially and as you work? Are you capable of honesty, generosity, openness and unconditional love, especially when your children are misbehaving, your partner has let you down and the tradesman failed to fix the plumbing/electrical/heating problem properly? This domain will press your buttons if nothing else does!
The emotional, mental and interpersonal aspects of life are all very challenging, yet excellence in each domain would be required to build a container for the god self. So if you haven’t got there yet, give yourself a break. That’s what the process of life is for. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.
Why imperfection is OK
Too much of the New Age talk about our god-like capacities is just a transference of the ideals of the ego — that is, to be rich, successful, beautiful and powerful — onto the spiritual realm. Who says such things equal being spiritual evolved? What if it was perfect for your soul to have a physical disability or illness? What if that was perfect for what you needed to develop? Why should it mean you’re less spiritually evolved? What if you didn’t need wealth to achieve your soul’s goal? What if your relationship breakdown was the perfect next step in getting you where you need to go? What if not being perfect is actually perfect? Maybe it’s how we manage our internal energies that counts, not what this process may look like from the outside.
I keep coming across spiritual people whose level of emotional processing goes something like this: “You find out you have a ‘negative’ emotion. And then you stop it.” Now, wouldn’t that be easy. People ruled by the intellect will believe this is how it goes: you tell yourself you don’t want the emotion and then it will just stop. It won’t. It just goes underground, into the unconscious. You get to think you’re clear and pure, but you haven’t done the work. It is actually messy clearing up the emotional realm. You have to get dirty. But the process is humbling — and humility is a virtue that’s in short supply in our culture.
I had a client, Sally, whose parents were high in the ranks of a particular spiritual path. They were greatly respected in their community and people would come to them for counsel and advice. But Sally’s experience of her parents revealed they hadn’t done their emotional work. Her mother was volatile and lost her temper frequently, causing the children to tiptoe around her to avoid confrontation. And her father was constantly telling Sally she was just full of ego and should stop getting lost in drama and emotion. Now, it may have been true that Sally was full of ego, but you can’t transcend ego by just being told to drop it. You have to learn to work with it and tame it. As a wise teacher I know said, “The aim is not to get rid of the ego — you must ennoble it.”
Sally’s parents had much spiritual wisdom, but their souls had not been trained and so, while they could maintain wise personae in the spiritual community, it was in the family that the lack of work showed up. And it was causing damage to their children. Sally didn’t need criticism. She needed guidance in how to work with and manage disturbing emotions and to see this process modelled by her parents.
Self acceptance as the first step
Back to Gina. It became apparent she had really taken on the New Age teachings about her “god self”, but this had become counter-productive. It was making her anxious because it was just another set of expectations for her to meet. Another quest for perfection. Nothing else would be good enough. She had a history of being hard on herself and now it had cranked up another level. It was like an inner spiritual guru/parent was taking her to task for not measuring up.
No one flourishes by being bullied and pressured into trying to be perfect. We don’t buy it if a parent says to a child, “Look, I’m only telling you you’re not good enough so you’ll do better,” or “I pressure you to perform because I love you and want you to do well.” We know this is not the way to help a child thrive. It’s the same with the way we treat our own selves. Demands for perfection will just create anxiety like Gina’s or perhaps dissatisfaction or depression. It could also lead to frustration or diminished self worth.
This was the case with Darren, a 40-year-old executive. Darren had a gambling addiction, which over a period of years had diminished his financial stability. He kept this part of his life a dark secret, which was relatively easy as the rest of his life looked quite functional. He had an excellent job, was well paid, had plenty of friends and came across as intelligent and humorous. Darren, however, believed his addiction cancelled any worth he might otherwise have. As a result, he never entered the realm of intimate relationship because he didn’t think anyone would accept him with his particular failing.
Darren sometimes had trouble at work because he was very reactive to criticism. He could become angry and defensive in the face of it. This was keeping him from advancing within the company and was very frustrating. Darren came to realise he had a very severe internal critic that made him also unable to tolerate external criticism. Only after much emotional work was Darren able to begin to accept himself, faults and all. He came to realise he was human and that was OK.
As Darren began the process of self-acceptance, he also became capable of greater compassion for others. He saw that other people had issues, too, but that just like him they kept them hidden behind a competent, sociable façade. And, ironically, as he accepted he was human and imperfect, his gambling “imperfection” began to diminish. It was no longer fuelled by self-loathing.
It’s a wonderful irony, but self-acceptance is the best platform on which to launch a quest for self-improvement or even a quest to embody your god self. Self-criticism will not encourage your talents to flourish. Self-loathing will never foster physical health. And self-hatred will never lead to a capacity for unconditional love. Although you might aspire to be a superior being, you have to start with where you are right now, and that means accepting your humanity.
Accepting your humanity doesn’t mean you get to sit back and leave it at that. But it is an essential starting point. It creates a fertile ground on which your being can grow into its full capacity. Depending on your nature, you will then need to work in different ways to build the container for your highest self.
We exist on a spectrum where those who push and pressure themselves into achieving are on one side and those who languish and never get going on anything are on the other. If you’re the type who pushes, you need to focus on surrender and allowing things to unfold. If you languish, you need to focus on intention setting and developing your will force. Others will need to do both things at different stages in life.
Self-acceptance creates a strange paradox. We end up balancing two seemingly opposite messages. On one side is the tolerance of our own vulnerabilities. If you tune into higher spiritual levels, the message is always: “Everything is perfect exactly as it is right now.” At the very same time, the soul will be on a quest to evolve towards something greater.
Gina had a hard time accommodating these opposites. In one instance she would say, “Ah, it feels so much better when I just let myself be. This is so much gentler than pushing myself to be superhuman.” But a few moments later, it would be: “I just can’t let myself get sick like this. I am capable of healing myself. I can heal anything. Why do I let myself down?”
The intellect has trouble accepting opposites. And, although Gina aspired towards spiritual accomplishment, she was actually still ruled by her mind, not her spirit. Part of her spiritual journey would be to take the intellect out of the driver’s seat. It couldn’t take her where she wanted to go. It was actually stalling the whole process.
Other aspects of Gina’s soul were offering her a better guidance: her body and her emotional self. These things kept reminding her she was human not a god. It was frustrating and humbling for her intellectual striving self. But it was the way forward.
The lesson of humility is a valuable one because, if we haven’t accepted ourselves, we won’t accept others. We will close our hearts to disability, to suffering and to imperfection. It’s easy to feel spiritual when life looks good. It creates a spiritual eugenics whereby only beautiful, powerful and successful people are considered spiritually adept. It may be wiser to instead be able to say: “Spirit is here, even in this, in this sickness, in this struggle, in this mistake. Even in this.”
There is dignity in the imperfection, and beauty in our foibles and quirks. There’s richness in the simple and in the mundane. We discover love still flows despite our mistakes and misfortune. It’s expressed even amid confusion, routine, oddness, regrets, in words badly expressed and in attempts to rectify and do better. There it is still. We forge our souls in the midst of all this. We humans have come a long way. And there is a long way to go. And that’s just perfect.
5 warning signs you are over-striving
If you can identify with any of these statements, stop, ease up and learn to be gentle with yourself.
- You make mental or written lists of goals and ideals you never actually achieve.
- You constantly have self-critical thoughts, probably accompanied by anxiety or frustration.
- You are always focused on the latest self-improvement book, workshop, seminar or technique.
- You find that you only have “deep and meaningful” conversations with others, with very little laughter.
- Pay attention to your body. If you notice tension or tightness, you’re probably trying too hard in some aspect of your life.