From the day we were born, we were sold a bill of goods. We were taught to expect this: a just and fair democratic government, a nice home, a good-paying job, a wonderful relationship, a perfect body, and maybe even perfectly behaved children. These ideals promoted by modern culture poisoned us with an expectation for “perfection.” In essence, we have been conditioned by society to seek out ideal circumstances in most, if not all, areas of our lives.
Then, when it just so happens that situations do not pan out according to these ideal expectations, we tend to get angry, frustrated, or confused. We may lash out at the unfairness of the world, or we shut down and feel despondent, or we beat ourselves and others up for not meeting our impossible demands.
Given that we live in an imperfect universe, this very painful loop needs to be interrupted. One of the most helpful shifts you can make in your life is to drop the expectation for perfection – of others, of the world, and of yourself. We have to do this in order to experience any lasting peace of mind and happiness.
How to Let Go of the Need for Perfection
To help you let go of this “Perfection” conditioning, follow these four mindful steps when you find yourself upset with a situation or person.
- Acknowledge and accept the present.
Perhaps you made a mistake, or you did not get the promotion, or your favored candidate lost, or someone acted uncharacteristically rude. Acknowledge and accept the facts just as they are. You may not like the situation, but accept it. Ask yourself, “Can I just accept things as they are?” If you find you don’t feel acceptance, try asking yourself, “Can I form the intention to eventually accept the present circumstances?” Accepting and acknowledging present imperfections in yourself, others, and circumstances does not mean that you give up on making improvements in your internal and external worlds. It just means that you stop the internal violence and war of resistance that was draining you of energy and reason.
- Remind yourself that no one is perfect.
You are not perfect. Your family is not perfect. Your friends are imperfect. Every human being has flaws. No one person or system is perfect. Things do NOT always work out as desired. Harm is caused when unspoken desires, needs, and unhealed inner wounds get unconsciously acted out by ourselves and others. Of course people will act unskillfully at times; we are each a “work in progress.”
- Bring kind attention to your internal experience.
Bring what Ajahn Brahm calls “kindfulness” (a kind mindful awareness) to your internal reaction to whatever is arising in the present moment. You may notice physical sensations like contraction, pain, or throbbing. Or perhaps you notice unpleasant emotions such as anger, impatience, or the desire for revenge. Whatever is arising in your heart and mind, hold it with kind and caring attention, noting all of the physical and emotional sensations arising and passing away. Engage with your internal experience until this negative reaction weakens. You may need to repeat this process for longer or shorter stints of time on many different occasions, depending on the intensity of this troubling energy. If you are experiencing overwhelming, lingering, and difficult emotional states, you may want to initiate “Forgiveness” practices, and it may be helpful to work with the guidance of a skilled teacher or therapist.
- Take wise and engaged action.
After you have completed processing your internal experience with kind awareness, you will often experience the wholesome impetus to respond wisely and compassionately to the given situation. If no wisdom arises at first, wait patiently until a kind response makes itself known to you. This wise response may direct you to do any of the following:
- Let go of perfection and accept what is.
- Do nothing, make a course correction, or have more patience and stay on course.
- Set or re-set healthy boundaries for yourself and others.
- Demonstrate against oppression.
- End an unhealthy relationship.
If you continue to feel beset by anger or confusion, you have not accessed the Wise Action stage yet. Continue to repeat steps #1 – #3 above until you begin to feel some calm wisdom arise. If the situation is still not resolving, you may need to remove some irritating stimuli from your life until you can find some balance in your mind and heart. For example, a man I worked with who was consistently angry about recent political situations had to reduce his amount of input from daily mainstream news before he could gain access to compassionate and wise responses to present circumstances.
The Freedom in Letting Go
As spiritual practitioners, we are perfectly imperfect beings in an imperfect world. Once we embrace this fact, not only do we feel a huge unburdening relief, but any negative inner turmoil we previously had dissipates. Then our innate love and compassion are freed up and can be expressed in response to any given situation.
In essence, when we open our arms to imperfection, we are able to embrace life’s journey with our full hearts, directed by kindness, passion, and purpose.