About 90% of the people that I see for therapy report feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed as their main reason for seeking treatment. Many times, these feelings develop because my clients have very high expectations for themselves, impossibly high in fact; they expect themselves to be perfect. Because none of us are perfect (and how boring would it be if we were?!) they never meet their goals for perfection, leaving them feeling like failures.
This understandably leads to anxiety.
Some of us tend to focus on things about our physical bodies that we (often with the help of the media) have learned to deem "imperfect" and "undesirable". The focus of this blog post is not going to be about body image, but check out the wonderful resources at thebodyisnotanapology.com and thisisbeauty.org to learn more about healthy body image and radical self love.
Another example of unrealistic standards is when we expect ourselves to be perfect in actions and words. This means that errors in judgement or awkward moments get blown out of proportion for us. I see this a lot in my practice.
One client in particular, we’ll call her Rosa*, found that she had very harsh reactions toward herself whenever she felt she had made a mistake. And she saw mistakes everywhere: from work, to social interactions, to the way she chose to spend her free time. Rosa constantly felt like she was failing. Some of these mistakes were imagined, but some were not. Mistakes happen. Rosa had miscalculated something at work. A friend was hurt by something she had said. She regretted not spending more time outside during the summer. Rosa found herself obsessing over these real and imagined mistakes, feeling paralyzed by all of them.
But these mistakes ended up being learning experiences for her.
The first thing Rosa learned to do was to develop a gentle attitude toward herself. This helped her separate mistakes from imagined mistakes. This gentle attitude also assisted in Rosa's ability to put her imperfections into perspective. Instead of either obsessing over her mistakes or running away from them, Rosa found a middle ground; she learned to find both acceptance and growth through these experiences, instead of fearing them. In doing so, she experienced a significant decrease in anxiety.
The way she identified and responded to her mistakes sculpted her into a woman who is careful at work, who can apologize un-defensively to friends, who knows how valuable time outside is for her mood. Rosa was able to see that she was a lovable person, not in spite of her imperfections, but because of her imperfections, and the way she learned to respond to them.
Below are some suggestions for reminding yourself of the beauty and opportunity in imperfection:
- Get creative (and messy)
Splatter paint a wall, weave a giant and haphazard tapestry, create an abstract colored pencil drawing, use clay to form a lopsided cup. Create art that is beautiful because it is flawed.
- Create a wabi-sabi altar
Collect objects that reflect the philosophy of wabi-sabi. This might look like ragged feathers, chipped pottery, asymmetrical flower arrangements, or unevenly polished stones. Set them up in a place you’ll see every day to remind you that imperfection is beautiful. This is true of the world outside of you, and it is also true of the world inside of you.
- Practice loving kindness meditation
Start by focusing on a person for whom you feel unconditional love. Pay close attention to the emotion of loving kindness that arises. Intentionally transfer this feeling of loving kindness to a person about whom you feel neutral. Then to a person you find difficult. Finally transfer this feeling of loving kindness to yourself. Take your time with this meditative process, and allow yourself to feel unconditional love and acceptance for who you are, flaws and all.
Any other ideas for activities that can serve as reminders to embrace imperfection? Please share in the comments section!
*I have changed Rosa's name and identifying features to protect the privacy of my clients