A lesson learned: be true to yourself and to be grateful for who you are.
We don’t have to be perfect to love ourselves. It took me a long time to realize this. I grew up in a religious tradition where “striving for perfection” was considered our highest calling. I took this to mean being free of everything we might consider an “imperfection,” including selfish thoughts and “worldly desires.” To me, there was no distinction between self-love and selfishness. Both were to be cleansed, and the self to be submerged. This way of thinking led me to enter the convent at the age of 14.
Many of my religious beliefs were based on dualisms and hierarchies: the supernatural was better than the natural; the spiritual was better than the physical; a religious life was better than the life of a lay person. I remained in the convent for eleven years. During this time, I tried to shed (or hide) any imperfections by transforming myself into someone else. Becoming a "new self" included wearing a "habit" and adopting a new name — both symbolizing the surrendering of my original self. The goal was to take on a more perfect way of being.
I realized over time that stripping myself of my individual identity was not a path to holiness or perfection; so I left the convent to seek a new path. That was 50 years ago. I have no regrets about having entered or leaving the convent. The convent experience was a part of my life’s journey.
While I no longer believe that striving for perfection is our highest calling, I still have perfectionist tendencies. I have to remind myself everyday that it’s OK to be OK. I know that I won’t always make the best choices or accomplish everything I set out to do. There will be times when I’ll be impatient and critical. That’s when I look to the words of the poet, Mary Oliver to help me find balance: "You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees. For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting."
I also think about what some scholars have said about who we are and how we function as humans. Abraham Maslow is one such scholar. Maslow is probably known best for his “hierarchy of needs.” The hierarchy Maslow proposed is usually presented in the shape of a triangle, with self-actualization at the peak. Maslow described self-actualization as becoming everything that one is capable of becoming. For spiritual seekers, this may suggest perfection, where one’s life is considered to be in perfect balance, one’s intentions pure, and enlightenment attained. Some scholars, including Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, question the merit of this interpretation of self-actualization. They’re concerned about a tendency toward self-indulgent or excessive focus on the self at the expense of broader social issues. I think the concept of self-actualization can also reinforce the tendency to strive for perfection. I, therefore, find Nadkarni’s “Revised Hierarchy of Needs” more helpful as a guide for living.
In her book Between Earth and Sky, Dr. Nadkarni places “mindfulness” at the peak of the hierarchy. Mindfulness, she suggests, is more meaningful than self-actualization as a goal. She also includes play, symbols, imagination, and spirituality as some of our other basic needs or strivings. She never suggests that attending to these needs can—or should—make us perfect. What she does suggest is that attending to these needs can greatly enrich our lives.
I still need reminders to not judge myself on a scale where perfection is the end point. I need reminders that living with imperfections, failings, and weaknesses is something common to all of us, that we all make mistakes and yet we’re worthy of respect. I sometimes use the prompt “I am a person who …” to remind me of my OK-ness with who I am. I copy this prompt in my journal and then write a positive statement about myself: I am a person who loves to hike. I am a person who cares about other living things. I am a person who enjoys poetry.
A conclusion I’ve come to after many years of reflection is that I’m not called to be perfect or to even strive for perfection. What I’m called to do is to be true to myself and to be grateful for who I am. With this in mind, I no longer seek perfection; I seek wholeness.
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