I wrote in a previous blog post (which admittedly was quite some time ago!) that I would talk about the four major narratives that had and continue to have a negative hold on my life and on the lives of those around me - clients, colleagues and friends. The four I mentioned were perfection, consumption, results as a measure of success, and death as the end.
"We must be perfect"
The second narrative that I want to talk about is perfection - the story that tells us that we must be perfect. As a society, we are completely obsessed with it, although most of the time we don’t even realise it. This story of perfection dominates every area of our lives, from the physical, to the mental to the spiritual.
Physically, we’re constantly bombarded with "perfect" bodies shown in magazines, films and other media. At my gym and on my protein shakes, I see pictures of ripped bodies in perfect proportions - an ideal to strive for but also a reminder of how far away from those images I am. On TV adverts we see models that are photoshopped and airbrushed - images of "perfection".
We are told we can buy our way to physical perfection if we go to this gym, hire this personal trainer (side note, I can provide tailor-made programs to help you achieve your fitness goals!), drink this protein shake and wear these clothes. Or just get that nose job.
We also buy into the stories that tell us that we have to be mentally, spiritually and emotionally perfect, whatever that means. We lap up hundreds of Ted talks, podcasts, books, quotes from Oprah or Richard Kiyosaki and videos from handsome ex-monks.
A note in defence of perfection
Now, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with striving to improve yourself in any of these areas of life. Yes, I'm all for encouraging people to become fitter, healthier and look nicer too. People should look to stretch their minds and open their hearts. I've also been known to engage in a bit of Jay Shetty (shhh) now and again.
The issue is what is underlying our behaviours when we take these good things too far - the idea of perfection. That there is an ideal to reach for and when we reach it, we’ll have achieved something. That we’d be who we were meant to be. That we’d be happy. I believe that there are problems with this line of thinking.
Problem 1: It’s unattainable
The first problem with living under the power of this narrative of perfection is this. It’s unobtainable. You’ll never reach it! What you’ll do will never ever be enough. You’ll always be falling short. You’ll never feel good enough.
Let’s take an example. You get ace one subject in an exam. But the part of you, the perfectionist inside your brain might shout (and this perfectionist voice in your head might sound a little bit like your parents!) - but you didn’t get full marks did you? Or you didn’t get top of the class! Or maybe you did, but the voice reminds you that you got that question wrong in another subject. Or even that you forgot your (boy)friend’s birthday and you’re a terrible girlfriend... Which has nothing to do with the fact that you just aced your freaking Biology exam!
But this is what the narrative of perfection does. It empowers the voice inside your head - the saboteur or the inner critic. It never lets you enjoy anything. It prevents you from fully living in the moment and experiencing goodness and happiness.
Much of modern and ancient culture tells us that we’re not good enough. We don’t make enough money, we’re not very “successful” (whatever that means), and need more material wealth. Hollywood tells us we’re not not thin enough or handsome enough. Occasionally, teachers, friends, or family members have implied that we’re not good enough or that we don’t measure up.
Sometimes, even in religious places like churches, we are reminded through sermons and conversations that we’re not good enough. And true, we are not perfect. We don’t behave in perfect ways. We therefore believe that we’re not good enough. That we're not good, beautiful, or working the way we're supposed to.
We believe that we're not up to par. We're not good enough for our friends, family, partner. That we're not good enough for God. We're not holy enough or worthy enough. In many religions people believe that they must be perfect before "God" (or whatever other word people use for the Divine) will accept them. That if they act in ways that aren’t perfect then God ("karma" or "Universe") will punish them.
Problem 2: Guilt / shame
The next problem with perfection is closely related to the first one - guilt, or shame. By definition, perfection is unattainable. When we inevitably fall short of this ideal that we call “perfection”, we feel guilty and ashamed that we are not what we should be. We think that we should be perfect, and if we don’t reach it, we somehow feel like we’re letting ourselves down, our parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends... or God down.
If we’re supposed to be perfect, and we’re not, then what the hell is wrong with us?
I know that we all might say out loud “nobody’s perfect”. But this obsession with perfection runs deep beneath the surface. We may say “nobody’s perfect” in our heads, but in our hearts we crave perfection. We demand perfection in others, sure, but at least as often in ourselves.
And we fall short. And we feel guilty as hell for it. Especially within communities of my own faith tradition (Christianity), which has a very keen sense of “sin”, the idea that we’re evil or bad.
Now, I believe it’s absolutely good and necessary to have a sense of right and wrong. To be able to tell when we go astray or when others cross certain lines that harm themselves and those around them. However, when we overdo it, as we often do, and combine it with our obsession with perfection, it generates enormous feelings of guilt and shame.
We start to wonder, how can anything good come from us?
Problem 3: Refusal to look at ourselves - our very real problems
To avoid shattering our false self-image of perfection and to avoid these very painful feelings of guilt and shame, a behaviour that we often engage in is avoiding looking at our problems. We avoid looking at things that we need to own up to and deal with for our own growth, spiritual and otherwise.
Imagine that you're unhealthily overweight (or drink too much or have issues with other unhealthy habits). If you are in denial of it, you will never end up taking steps towards a healthier life. It's the same with other areas in your life.
I had (have?) issues that I for a long time refused to look at and deal with. I think this was in part because I wanted to feel like a good person, and thought I had to be perfect to be that. If I had these very real issues, how then could I be a good person? So I put myself in a place of denial.
How many of you have things inside you, that you really don’t want to face up to? Perhaps it’s something that you did. Or perhaps it’s something that you thought, or felt, and you don’t want to deal with it. You hide it away in the depths of your mind or heart.
The problem is that when the issue isn’t faced and looked at, it continues to hold power over you and eat you up from the inside, affecting your whole being. I'm sure you know what I mean when I say that it ends up coming out in other ways anyway (in the form of symptoms).
Problem 4: Refusal to look at ourselves - our true desires
Problem 4 is related to the previous problem.
We refuse to look within ourselves, for fear of seeing our problems or for fear of what we might find. We know that if we look, we will see imperfection and that we will see a “bad person”. We do not trust ourselves.
A tragic and damaging side effect of doing this is that you lose touch with who you truly are. You’re afraid to ask your true inner self the questions that really matter. It leads to the inability to make decisions. What should I do? What should I study? Who should I date / marry? What outfit will I wear tomorrow? (I’m just kidding that that last one.)
Making decisions around these questions, is a part of life. Making hard decisions. Meaningful, conscious decisions. Everyone does it, or should do it. But they seem impossible. Why?
When you don’t know yourself because you haven’t looked inside yourself because you are afraid of what you might find because you ARE NOT PERFECT AND THAT MEANS YOU’RE BAD! How are you supposed to know what to do if you don’t even know yourself?
I also suffered this problem. For years I refused to look inside because yes, I was not perfect. I therefore didn’t know myself. So I made decisions without knowing what I truly wanted, constantly second guessing myself. Often I ended up not making the decisions. Rather, they were made for me. Because often if you don’t make the decisions yourself then they will be made for you.
Problem 5: Impact on the community
This obsession with perfection also can have an impact on the communities that you belong to. Families, friendship groups, workplaces, or faith groups (in my tradition, we call this "the body of Christ" - the Church). One of the effects that the narrative of perfection can have is that our communities can become places where we can’t talk about the darkness in our own lives.
It’s can become a whitewashed version of real life. A place where you pretend to be good people. This even happens in churches - sure, people say that we're all all sinners etc, and individuals might certainly believe that but it’s not shared in the community. For me, the example that is most vivid in my mind is my brother's old church, which I attended for almost a year following his death, where everyone sang happy clappy songs and said “blessings” to each other.
In such places, when you are going through something that is so damned difficult, whether it’s a dark addiction in your life, drugs, porn, anger, or perhaps a deep pain - abuse (as a victim or as a perpetrator), grief or depression, you end up feeling like you can't talk about your issues openly.
When you feel like you’re losing yourself to depression, suicidal thoughts, drugs, unhealthy sex life, or alcohol abuse, how many of you would feel comfortable about speaking about it openly with people in your communities?
When my brother died, I spent a long time looking through his emails, messages, speaking to his friends and church members, trying to piece together his final moments. Although we lived in the same city and loved each other, we weren’t exactly the sharing type. So I had to try and get to know him in this way, through electronic scraps of him left behind and through other people’s memories. As I dug deeper and deeper, I found out about more and more about his struggles with depression, feelings of inadequacy, and not being able to talk about the dark struggles that he had with the people from his church. Or with me, for that matter.
It breaks my heart that he's no longer here and I never got to share his burdens, or share my own burdens with him, of which I had and have plenty of as well. Like him, I always bore it myself and never told anyone about it. Not really. And now it’s too late.
A better story
It’s pretty bleak isn’t it?
Can I share with you a better story? It actually comes from the roots of my faith tradition, which may sound surprising as Christianity is often the perpetrator of this obsession with perfection.
"God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." - Genesis 1:31
This thousands-of-year-old ancient wisdom tells us that we are good (contrary to what modern churches try to tell us). We may get it wrong from time to time, but we are fundamentally good. Recognition of this unchanging fact is very powerful, regardless of our faith tradition or current worldview.
Only by rejecting the need for perfection, and affirming our goodness can we achieve anything. Otherwise the fear of rejection and failure will consume us and we will never take any steps forward. Sure, we know that we are not perfect but we also realise that we don’t have to be. We are good. You are good. There is a "divine", untaintable goodness in us that cannot be denied.
This affirmation of goodness has tremendous power for change. Do you remember one of the problems with the narrative of perfection? It’s prevents us from looking inside and dealing with the very real problems that we have. We may also buy into the narrative that we are not good people because we are not perfect and we make mistakes. And we end up living up to that narrative.
A tale of two sisters
Let me tell you a story about two sisters I know. Let’s call them Pippa and Sarah. They grew up in a small town on the outskirts of greater London. Sarah was three years older than Pippa. In their teens, Pippa and Sarah used to have horrible fights that could at times become very physical. One time a fight got out of hand and Sarah ended up strangling Pippa. In that moment, Pippa genuinely feared that her sister might kill her.
Something needed to be done. The way things were going, once they grew up and moved out of the family home, they would no longer have a relationship.
Pippa remembers clearly a moment that was a pivotal point in their relationship. She’d been wondering why Sarah, her own flesh and blood, was treating her so badly. Pippa didn’t think Sarah wasn’t a bad person. She believed that there was goodness in Sarah, despite the violent and destructive actions that she experienced on the surface. Pippa decided to tell Sarah exactly that - that she didn’t think Sarah was a bad person. That she didn’t know why a good person like Sarah would treat her in this way, regardless of the cause of the argument.
Pippa recounts that when she spoke these words of affirmation of goodness to Sarah, a strange expression came across Sarah's face. It was as though that concept was a foreign one. Later she would tell Pippa that she’d not thought of herself as a good person. Not really. Not deep down inside. Sarah believed that she was a bad person and her actions were just living up to that expectation.
Over time, and it was a long period of time, Pippa noticed a gradual change in Sarah’s behaviour. They still argued and fought, and sometimes things would get out of control. But slowly, little by little, Sarah began to cut down her unacceptable outbursts of violence. Eventually it disappeared. Today, they are good friends and although they still have disagreements and fights in the heat of the moment, their bond remains strong. A simple affirmation of goodness - Pippa's new story told that contradicted the story Sarah was telling herself in her head - was the catalyst for change.
My anger issues
I have so many struggles within my own life, but one which stands out is anger.
Sometimes, in the crowds during rush hour, I would get really annoyed when people bump past me, or get in my way. I remember this one time a guy tripped me up on purpose at Poplar Station in London and I pushed him down across the platform.
This issue with anger wasn't just limited to strangers either. I’m ashamed to admit that I had issues with anger in my marriage too. There were times when I'd get so angry when my ex-wife and I argued. I was never physically violent but definitely vocally so. For years I’ve struggled with it. I guess I still do from time to time (especially in the Wild West that are the roads of Phnom Penh).
I remember though, a moment when my ex-wife Iris said to me, "You don’t have to be like this. You don't have to strike in anger like that. You are not this person. I know that you’re a good person inside."
This was a change in tact from, "Why do you have to be so angry all the time?" It was way more effective. Yes, the "Why do you have to be so angry all the time" led to guilt and I tried to change, but it didn’t really work. I’d always go back to repeating the same mistake and the same behaviours.
Yet this time, something broke inside and I remember breaking down into tears. I didn’t really like that angry person. I didn’t want to be that person. And here was someone who's experienced it all and taken the brunt of it, telling me that she believed that I didn’t have to be like this. That this angry person wasn’t really me. That I was acting out contrary to my true nature. This was a completely new way to think about it, and that affirmation of my inner goodness gave me the courage to confront the issue head on, knowing that the anger issue is something I had but wasn't something that defined my being.
Yes, we have to be aware of when we fall astray and do wrong to ourselves and others. I’m not advocating a fluffy philosophy that says anything goes. That’s not true. We need to call out bad acts where we see it. But, more often than not, all around the world, we are so quick to jump to point the finger and highlight these faults and shortcomings. When sometimes an affirmation of goodness might have greater power to change.
There is a Hebrew word for repentance, T’shuvah, which literally means “to return”. I loved this word and the image so much that I even had it tattooed on my chest.
The picture you get is of a path, representing your true self, true path, inner Divine, God's plan, or whatever word or phrase rings true to you to describe that original goodness. The word recognises and affirms this fundamental goodness inside of us. At the same time, it recognises that we sometimes stray from that path. That we mess up and go astray. The image behind the word T'shuvah is of this return to that original path. The idea that there’s always hope for a return to that right path, no matter how far off we go, for we are fundamentally good.
Affirmation of goodness leads to freedom and action
When we trust that we are good, when we choose to look at ourselves in this new way, we no longer have to be afraid of looking within ourselves. We take a stand for our fundamental goodness. We can learn to trust ourselves, rather than doubting ourselves all the time. We no longer have to second guess (although there is obviously a lot of work in learning to discern what is truth and what is just ego crap)!
So many times I’ve had conversations with my friends that have experienced the same struggles as me. In that we say “I really want this, but I’m not sure if I’m being selfish in wanting it.” We do not trust ourselves and we don’t know ourselves. It’s borne out of this feeling of not being a good person. Because of this doubt, we do not look inside ourselves to find the answers to the questions that we are being asked by the world about what kind of life we want to live.
And it is paralyzing. Whereas perfection and not feeling good enough leads to paralysis, believing your goodness leads to action.
And life is all about action and growth and development and moving forward. To the person you were meant to be. And that’s why I believe in the counter narrative of goodness, not perfection.
Reflections and questions
What has your experience been with the narrative of perfection or the counter narrative of goodness?
What would it look like in your life if you were to live by the narrative of fundamental goodness?
Let me know below!