This article first appeared in Positivepsychologynews.com
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary
awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!”
Some habits never die. Unless we do something about it.
So it has been with my addiction to perfection. I have clear memories of me when I was 10 – playing with friends and insisting every little while that we start anew because it wasn’t ‘right’ enough. Tearing pages out of my notebook and leaving a skeletal book because the handwriting wasn’t ‘good’ enough. Painting over every artistic attempt, even though I had caught the essence of the moment because it wasn’t ‘complete’ enough. In my pursuit of perfection, nothing was ever enough.
Decades passed. I could’ve laughed at those memories if not for the fact that they had followed me and embedded themselves in my life, way after they were a childhood obsession. I began my life afresh every few weeks, days sometimes. I was past thirty and life had yet to begin!
And then I got into Positive Psychology, the science of optimal living and human flourishing. It seemed made for me. I was thrilled by its mission to bring out the best in us. I practiced its skills and interventions. I delighted in the visualization of the perfect life and did my best to strive towards it. Until I realized that I was wrongly using it to stoke my own perfectionist agenda.
You see, I had an image of an ideal life before me and thought that Positive Psychology would help me get there. And perhaps I wasn’t unlike a lot of us. How many of us would not want the best version of ourselves to reflect someone who is not only knowledgeable, but loving and kind, not only creative but patient and tolerant, not only graceful but funny and alive.
But what I overlooked, in my efforts towards my goal, was that the path to anything worth striving for is laden with mistakes, with relapses and with disappointments. In my perfect agenda, I had mentally rejected all of those. In my singular focus, I had been oblivious to the forces of emotions, of personalities and of circumstances. In my craving for positive outcomes, I had essentially left negative conditions no space in my life.
However, no life is complete without its share of challenges and setbacks. They make us emotionally adaptive, arm us with coping mechanisms and strengthen our resilience. I did not realize it then, but my refusal to accept my mistakes was depriving me of the benefit of learning from them and thus stalling my own growth. What I had in front of me was not a pathway to self-improvement but a gigantic hurdle before a mirage. I was not only aiming for a perfect version of me, I was giving myself very little space to try. No wonder then that I tried the same Herculean task of overnight transformation and failed again and again and yet again. An ant could’ve done better than me!
Nor did I realize that my refusal to accept myself as I was and cheer myself for the efforts I was making was incubating me in a pit of criticism. Nothing good ever comes from there. My refusal to acknowledge my own negative traits and accept my less than upbeat emotions was closing me down in shame and disappointment. Had I practiced Self-compassion instead, I would’ve been able to embrace my whole self even when I failed and through unconditional love, found the strength to do the right thing. With no space in my life, nor in my heart for the negative, I was continually engineering my own downward spiral.
I have learnt these lessons over time. Positive psychology and experience have changed my outlook on life. I continue to practice the habits of a good life everyday. Sometimes I make gigantic strides and sometimes I fall flat on my face. And that is fine. For no baby learnt to walk by receiving a beating for its tumbles or taunts about the perfect stride. Sometimes I feel eager and excited and sometimes I feel nervous and disappointed. But I accept that too. For I have ignored my emotions long enough, confusing them with my own identity. Now I know better. Our true selves lie beyond the momentary experience of emotions and past the temporary craving of outcomes. The true me is Rumi’s Guest House and emotions are my guests. I need to give them space. They come for a reason and leave when ready.
I have also learnt that the best version of me is not one that is perfect, but one that is human – hopeful, fallible, energetic, emotional. It is the version I have come to accept, love, cherish. I strive to do my best not only because things are going well, but also despite it. And that is the essence of Positive Psychology.