Remember that nightmare we’ve all had at one point or another about being naked in public in front of a crowd? Do you remember what you feel in that dream? Excited? Elated? Proud? Seductive?
Most often we feel shame, fear, embarrassment, extreme vulnerability, powerful discomfort, maybe even horrified.
Why? Because the dream is often about the fear of exposure, fear of rejection; that if people saw us for who we really are, they would not accept us, they might even ridicule us. Dreams about nakedness in public is about a deep fear of inadequacy and even shame.
So our culture demands that we go out in public looking good, clothed not just adequately but impressively. We grow up in families that equate high performance with value and worth. We learn early on to hide our inadequacies as best we can in order to appear put together. Perfection is the standard.
The irony is that deep down we know that perfection is not only unreasonable, it’s pretty much impossible. Read my last blog where I give the example of the hitting percentage of baseball’s best players. Even the greatest batters in history never hit perfectly. And they’re heroes.
And yet we continue to hold ourselves accountable to that perfection measuring stick, holding our self esteem and self worth hostage to an impossible standard. And if you’re a part of a religious community, that standard is spiritualized and theologized, raising the stakes even higher of having to measure up.
Connecting Perfectionism and Shame
Dr. Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, points out that
“where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.” (p. 55)
That certainly explains our fear of exposure in our nightmare of being naked in public. We will do whatever it takes to keep our inadequacies from being seen because deep down there’s a feeling of shame connected to failure or imperfection. We see ourselves as “less than” in our failures.
So we resort to whatever form of perfectionism most fits our goal of appearing “together” in every setting: e.g. we’ll not take on any difficult tasks or take any risks for fear of failing and being exposed; we’ll automatically assume responsibility for something going wrong, taking the blame; or we’ll refuse to ever own up to mistakes, blaming other people for what went wrong; we’ll avoid any situations that might cause us to look like we’re not good enough; or we’ll refuse to leave the house unless we look just “right” in public, trying to maintain a predetermined image that’s acceptable to us and others. And the list goes on.
But let’s face it: this is a really really tiring way to live! Isn’t it? It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to try to maintain a perfect image for everyone else, including ourselves. Exhausting! And it keeps us from the freedom of really living life and enjoying life in new and wonderful ways. That belief system narrows rather than expands our lives.
Three Ways A Spirituality of Imperfection is an Antidote to Perfectionism
One of the powerful antidotes to this debilitating life approach is the practice of a spirituality of imperfection. That’s right. Healthy, genuine spirituality is based upon embracing the value of imperfection.
Here are several Whys and Hows to practicing this spirituality of imperfection.
First, imperfection is a call to practice compassion on yourself.
Dr. Brown interviewed scores of people who were engaging with the world from a place of authenticity and worthiness. She noticed that all had a lot in common experience when it came to perfectionism. First, they spoke about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, and without shame and fear. Second, they were slow to judge themselves and others. They operated from a place of “We’re all doing the best we can.” Their ability to step into self compassion was extremely high. (Ibid., p. 59)
The next time you make a mistake or do something less than perfectly, practice compassion on yourself. Don’t judge yourself negatively by going to that indictment, “I’m such a loser! Why can’t I do anything well! If people knew I was this kind of a failure, they’d reject me for sure!”
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” Christopher K. Germer
Second, imperfection is a place of Light. Let it in.
The great spiritual teachers of the past saw imperfection as the crack in the armor, the “wound” that lets God in.
Meister Eckhart (the 13th century German theologican, mystic, and philosopher) wrote,
“To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least.”
This truth is applied by the contemporary Jungian analyst who identifies “addictions,” for example, as one of the “wounds” that lets God in:
“Addiction keeps a person in touch with the god …. At the very point of the vulnerability is where the surrender takes place—that is where the god enters. The god comes through the wound.”
So rather than immediately condemning ourselves for a mistake, failure, or even continual “wound” whenever it manifests itself, pause … embrace it … and let it bring you to the point of surrender … let it point you to God who comes through that mistake to embrace you and love you, and then to little by little bring healing to your wound.
Isn’t that what we do as parents when our child falls down, scrapes himself, and comes to us bleeding. We don’t refuse him, telling him to get cleaned and bandaged up first before we embrace him. We get down on our knees, pull him into our arms, holding him tightly and tenderly, whispering words of love. We gently clean up the wound, put a band-aid on it, and then hold him close again. That moment of “wounding” lets our love into his life in tangible, intimate ways.
The New Testament spiritual leader Paul, who wrestled with what he called “a thorn in his flesh” (some kind of either physical or emotional or spiritual ongoing ailment) and kept asking God to remove it from his life, was confronted by the grace of God in the midst of his wound. Rather than taking the “wound” away from Paul, God came to him in the middle of it, and said,
“My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in your weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
So embrace your “wound” and let it allow God’s amazing compassion and love to shine through the cracks of your armor straight into your life.
And third, imperfection is a place of Light. Let it out.
To paraphrase Leonard Cohen’s lyrics from Anthem,
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets out.”
It is a misguided myth which our perfectionism gets us to buy into: that we lose people’s respect if we fail and make mistakes, if our “wounds” show too much.
Truth is, people aren’t looking for perfection from us; people are wanting authenticity, honesty and transparency even about our imperfections. “Be real,” people often say.
The same New Testament spiritual leader, Paul, emphasized this truth when he described human beings as “clay pots”–cracked containers. His point was that the Light (he called it the “glory of God”) that lives inside us is able to shine out into the world through our cracks (2 Corinthians 4:7). No cracks, no visible light to the world. God needs our cracks so God’s glory can shine through us in order to reveal divine compassion and love to others.
So rather than running from our imperfections, rather than covering them over, or hiding them, or even denying them, we can “sanctify” them (give them over to a holy purpose)–that is, allow them to be used by the Light as vehicles through which the Light of Love radiates out to the world.
Leonard Cohen is right. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets out.
Sometimes, it’s the “sinners” that are more appealing than the “saints.” Who wants to be around someone who tries to be perfect all the time, who refuses to admit imperfection in themselves or others, and who thinks they’re more “righteous” than everyone else? No grace or compassion there. Perfectionism is, after all, an attempt to play God.
So embrace the crack. Be vulnerable. Be authentic and transparent. That will be used by God to let the Light shine out, to show others that even in our imperfections, love and compassion can shine through and be visible and experienced by others. Sometimes, it’s our willingness to be “naked” in public that reveals the true glory of God.