Why perfection can’t make you happy – but this will

Our culture of perfection is bringing up more insights for me.

You know, we’re supposed to have perfect hair, perfect bodies, perfect kitchens, perfect homes, perfect relationships, be fabulous foodies and cooks, and we’re even supposed to have perfect thoughts.

You’re probably like me in that you hardly notice what’s going on because we’re swimming in this culture. For me, once I started paying attention, I realized I was telling myself stuff like this: “If I just exercise more, I’ll have a perfect body. If I take some cooking classes I’ll be able to be a foodie, too. If I get more spiritual, I’ll have more perfect thoughts,” and so on.

Our consumer culture feeds this stuff to us constantly and it’s hard to ignore. We’re being told all of the time that we can do more and be more. We’re inspired by blog posts about the latest exercise routine, the latest hair and fashion products, and we see countless shows about foodie culture. We see beautiful models and ads that tell us if we just buy one more product or service, we can get there – we can be perfect. The workout clothing industry alone is a billion dollar industry.

Trying to be perfect is not making us happy

But the trouble is – trying to be more perfect is not making any of us happy, and definitely not me. I found one study that showed 3 minutes spent looking at a fashion magazine caused 70% of women to feel depressed, guilty, and shameful. It does not help that the average woman sees 400 to 600 advertisements per day.

But still – as relentless as our consumer culture is, I don’t want to be stressed and controlled by it. So I decided to stop, and look into my heart and find out what’s been driving me to buy into this culture of perfection.

It’s my deepest fear of being unlovable. If I’m more perfect, I’ll be more loveable. I know I’m not alone because the feeling of being unlovable is the deepest fear that we all have. We share it. No wonder why we’re such easy targets.

I think, if my body is perfect, I’ll be more loveable. If my hair is perfect, I’ll be more loveable. If my cooking skills are amazing, if my house looks uber stylish, and if my spiritual life is perfect – then I’ll be loveable. Because if all of these things are perfect, then no-one will notice my real flaws. No-one will notice that I’m not perfect.

But trying to be perfect is just another way to keep busy so I don’t have to look inside myself, so I don’t have to connect deeply, and so I don’t have to worry that I’m not loveable as I am.

When I saw this inside myself, I knew I wanted off of this breathless train. I knew I wanted a more heartfelt life, and I knew for sure that trying to keep up with this culture of perfection was not bringing me the sweetness, love and warmth that I desire.

The perfect time to put my spiritual roots to use in real life

I realized that this was the perfect time to put my spiritual roots to use in real life.

I remembered the Buddhist lesson of the middle way. That means I want to enjoy some of the fruits of our culture, but I have to be aware enough to know when to stop. For instance, sometimes (not always) I want to have fun with fashion and I like looking my best. I’m not living on a desert island, and it’s important to me to feel accepted by our culture, within limits. I also want to maintain my health, and that means exercising and eating well. I love the feeling I get when my body feels strong, and I love healthy food. 

But there is a line that’s easy to cross – easy to head into perfection territory in order to feel more loveable.

So I use the second Buddhist lesson of mindfulness. I pay attention to myself and check my motives. For instance, I can tell when I’m on the path for perfection because I’ll feel a general anxiety and stress when I’m doing something. I’ll ask myself, “Am I exercising because I enjoy feeling strong and healthy, or have I turned it into an obsession so I can have a perfect body?”

“Is my home a reflection of what I love, is my kitchen good enough for my needs, or am I trying to make myself appear like I have it all together? What’s my motive?”  

The people I love most are anything but perfect

I have to be aware enough during the day to notice my motives. And when I get caught in the perfection cycle, I remind myself that I’m actually more loveable when I’m not perfect. I know this is true because the people I love most are anything but perfect.

My aunt is a perfect example. She was all love, and there was nothing perfect about her.

She had a very un-cool home and she was a very un-cool cook. Her house was just a regular house and she often served old- fashioned spaghetti with red sauce when she had people over. Maybe a few green beans and maybe garlic bread – I don’t remember the details, but there was nothing remotely fancy about what she served, for sure.

My aunt had seven kids, and she was the warmest person I have ever known. I just loved hanging out at her house. I couldn’t even tell you what the decor looked like. Couldn’t sing praises to her amazing cooking. But many years later I still carry with me the incredible love and warmth that I always felt there.

Maybe instead of spending so much time obsessing over how to make one more thing perfect in our lives, we spend that same time doing practices that open our hearts, and that actually do make us happier.

Pretty much every study on the planet shows that people are happiest when they prioritize doing good for others. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important.

Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.

Try my two practices yourself. Pay attention to your motivations and your anxiety level. You’ll feel calm and even joyful when you’re doing something because your heart loves it, versus a raw anxiety from trying to be perfect. And then think about how you feel when you’re connecting deeply with others.

Try this heart opening practice

Here’s something you can do every morning or evening as a way to begin opening your heart. If you do this practice for awhile, you’ll probably start seeing the world in a different way. You’ll see ways that you can connect with others in a deeper way.

It’s called Loving Kindness Meditation. I found a great video produced by UC Berkeley. It’s a way to introduce this meditation to kids, but I’m sharing it here because it’s so straightforward that you can use it alone or with kids:

The general idea is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and imagine what you wish for your life. Formulate your desires into three or four phrases. Traditionally they would be something like this:

May I be healthy and strong. May I be happy. May I be filled with ease. Loving-kindness meditation is a simple repetition of these phrases, but directing them at different people. You can do this on your own or with your kids before bed.

Visualize who you are directing these words towards, and at first say something (May you be happy) and the kids repeat it. After a few repetitions, start saying to them in unison. The phrases to use are “May you be healthy and strong. May you be happy. May you be peaceful.

  1. Start by directing the phrases at yourself: May I be happy.
  2. Next, direct it towards someone you feel thankful for or someone who has helped you.
  3. Now visualize someone you feel neutral about—people you neither like nor dislike. This one can be harder than you’d think: Makes me realize how quick we can be to judge people as either positive or negative in our lives.
  4. Ironically, the next one can be easier: visualizing the people you don’t like or who you are having a hard time with. Kids who are being teased or bullied at school often feel quite empowered when they send love to the people making them miserable. And we adults have plenty of people who stir up our negative emotions.
  5. Finally, direct this towards everyone universally: “May all beings everywhere be happy.

1 comment

  1. Thank you, Janet. Excellent article. Something we can all use to remove our thoughts from today’s may mind boggling distractions.

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