Fear neither abandonment nor abandon.
Both states teach you about you:
In abandonment, you learn to love your own company – that’s a lesson of solitude.
In abandon, you learn to leave behind your conditioned mind – that’s a lesson of ecstasy.
Do you have a favorite thought?
Mine is: “All that can be (right now), already is.”
This thought of acceptance shines from behind all my other thoughts, it’s the inner illumination of my mind-cave, the interior ambiance of my consciousness.
Like that nightlight you leave on when you go to sleep.
Nightlight photo available from Shutterstock
Turn rumination into acceptance. Upgrade your perfectionistic “shoulda, coulda, woulda” mantra with the word “buddha.” The word “buddha” means “awakened, enlightened” in Pali. Use this term in its lower-case connotation as a symbol of acceptance and appreciation of the natural perfection of what is.
When you find yourself ruminating on some past imperfection, toss in a little bit of “buddha” into your self-talk. Recognize that whatever you did, you did your best. And even if your best was not enough for others, it is enough for you. What else could’ve you done, be better than you were at that moment in time?! Wake up to the impossibility of that! After all, to be better than you are (at a given moment of time) is to be different from how you are (at a given moment of time). But you were what you were. How could’ve you been better than you were when you were what you were?! Of course, you couldn’t've! To think that you could’ve been the you that you were and a better (i.e. different) you at the same time … is just nonsense.
So rest your mind: “Shoulda, coulda, woulda, buddha.” End of story.
Adapted from Present Pefect: a Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need to Control (New Harbinger, Somov, 2010)
As a clinician, I believe that self-esteem (as a treatment goal or as a self-help goal) is overrated. I am a far bigger fan of self-acceptance. Here are some thoughts regarding self-esteem and self-acceptance.
On Conditionality of Self-Estimation & Unconditionality of Self-Acceptance
However you slice it self-esteem begins with self-judgment. After all, to estimate is to evaluate, to appraise, i.e. to judge. Judgment is when we evaluate something against a standard, against a condition of worth and value. As such, self-estimation is inherently conditional.
Through the process of self-estimation we try to see if we meet a certain condition of worth. If we do, we have self-esteem. If we don’t, we don’t. This dichotomous, dualistic, conditional view of self cuts us apart and fragments our wholeness.
The process of self-evaluation is never over. As we go from one situation to another our evaluation of ourselves changes. If I play chess with my neighbor, I feel like a king. If I play it with a grand-master, I feel like a pawn. This is the inherent instability of self-esteem: it is dependent on the circumstance and the yardsticks of worth by which we evaluate ourselves.
Classic perfectionism is like an infinite tunnel: you drive in and you never get out. For a finite mortal like you and I, chasing the Unattainable is akin to trying to beat the speed of light. It can’t be done. Thus, the no-way-out-doom-and-gloom of the perfectionistic mind. Perfectionism is an autobahn into Nowhere without any exit ramps. That is, unless we redefine Perfection and Perfectionism.
Shifting the Paradigm of Perfectionism
As I see it, perfectionism is a crisis of misunderstanding of the concept of perfection. As a culture we believe that perfection is unattainable. If seen as such, the word “perfection” becomes a nonsense word, a word that refers to something imaginary and nothing real, nothing attainable.
I posit just the opposite: the word “perfection” isn’t a nonsense word, it does refer to something real. Indeed, as I see it, the word “perfection” is synonymous with the word “reality.” As such, perfection is not only attainable, it is inevitable.
Important to understand:
to accept is not to give up or surrender;
to accept is to relax (into the here-and-now reality of what is).
People say: “Perfection is unattainable.” And yet they chase it. What a psychologically toxic set-up! What a self-fulfilling destiny of dissatisfaction! Chasing theoretical perfection is like hunting unicorns. Good luck.
Dare to consider: reality is (already) perfect and perfectible. This “and” is the hardest “and” to swallow for a dualistic mind. Reality is already the best that it can be at any given point in time and it can still be better.
Notice the ordinary (real-time) perfection of what (already) is. There is no other reality than the here-and-now reality that right now is: everything that right now can be already is. The rest is fantasy. So, take a break from hunting non-existent unicorns and notice the cornucopia of the present moment.
Psychologically speaking, koans are a unique way to inoculate a human mind to the anxiety of uncertainty. When we encounter uncertainty, we are stumped. Uncertainty frustrates us with its enigmatic nonsense. Koans, in their unanswerable quality, effectively simulate such moments of uncertainty. Author Hee-Jin Kim explains: the koans are “realized, not solved” (1975, 101).
Admittedly, this explanation is a bit of a puzzle itself. But here’s how I make sense of it. A koan, once again, is an unanswerable puzzle. If we take it on, we begin banging our head against the wall of the unknown. At some point, we realize that there is no solution, and we settle into a don’t-know mind. This realization, of course, comes up pretty early in the koan work. And it serves as the true beginning, not the end of the process.
Knowing in advance that you are working with an unanswerable question, you accept your limitations. No longer trying to know the unknowable, you calmly remain with the question in a state of not knowing. Knowingly, you keep chasing the tail of not knowing in a process that, I believe, very much parallels the day-to-day mystery of life. Thus, the potential therapeutic value of koan work as a kind of one-question-therapy that can help soothe the perfectionistic thirst for answers.
Here are a few of the koans [from the Present Perfect book] that I developed to challenge perfectionistic thinking for my clients and my readers:
Imagination is always at least one step ahead of reality. When we appraise the world, ourselves, or others, we compare what is (the real) with what theoretically could be (the imagined).
Say you got a B on a test. You look at this grade and you think that you could have done better, that you could have gotten an A. But that’s theory. The reality is that you got a B, not an A, and this B represented your practical (not theoretical) best.
With this in mind, let me ask you this: what do you mean by perfection—the theoretical best or the practical best? When you think about perfection, are you thinking about the imaginary perfection of what could be or about the perfection of what actually is? Of course, this is something of a rhetorical question. I know the answer: as a perfectionist, you define perfection as a theoretical best. That’s exactly why you are never satisfied with reality as it is.
I love junk email: its desperation, its naiveté, its brazenness. I can relate to the humanity (psychology) behind it. Can you?
For example (from this morning): “LOAN OFFER! READ THE ATTACHED FILE AND CONTACT MR. CLARK.”
Yes, it was all in caps. And no, I didn’t contact Mr. Clark…
You just know there’s suffering and ambition behind this.
Suffering + Ambition = Humanity