The older I get the more I realize how significant it is to learn how to say No to some things in order to say Yes to others. And especially to learn which are the more important things to push back against and push forward toward. Here are two strategies for doing this well.
Nakedness and Inadequacy 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.
The premise was that four celebrity judges would try to guess which of the three contestants was the genuine character being described in an unusual and unique life story read out loud by the host. All contestants introduced themselves by the name of the true character. The two "imposter" contestants could lie with their answers, the true character had to tell the truth in every answer. After questioning each contestant, the judges would vote. The host would then say those famous words, "Will the real [name of the character] please stand up."
I used to love watching the show, trying to guess which was the real character. I sometimes got it right. But often I was completely surprised. And I've never forgotten the host's line at the end of the vote: Will the real ________ please stand up."
So what was the appeal to such a simple game show? The drama of trying to figure out who was who? Deception? Humor? Seeing judges voting? Unusual life stories? A competition of winning and losing?
Probably all of the above. But I think there was also something else at play. We are drawn to that which is true, to people who are able to stand up and truly be themselves. We call this Authenticity.
I'm inspired by the way Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, defines Authenticity:
"Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are." (p. 50)
The "letting go" of this ideal self we think we're supposed to be (and even that can change depending on which environment we're in at any given time) is really hard. Isn't it? Why?
Why Living Authentically is So Difficult
Our external culture. We live in a world that strongly encourages, sometimes even demands, that we fit in, don't stand out too much, conform to accepted expectations and standards. Though our country was founded on individuality and the pioneering spirit, our culture has strong ways of limiting all of that.
We're raised to acquiesce to authority---the authority of parents, adults, institutions, people who know more than we do, power, position, status. We're taught not to trust ourselves or our gut instincts or to look too deeply inside ourselves. All true authority is outside ourselves, we're told.
No wonder we have in our culture an authenticity challenge.
Our internal Culture. Compounding this cultural squeeze is the truth that inside ourselves we often have another battle raging. It's a self-esteem and self-worth issue. So that whenever we feel shame or unworthiness or guilt that creates self-doubt, we can quickly and easily sell ourselves out and say, "I can be anybody you need me to be. Watch me!"
So we can allow our self-identity to shift with the winds and tides of our surrounding people---whatever it takes to please them or get their approval so we can feel good about ourselves.
We definitely have an authenticity challenge these days.
So how do we learn to choose authenticity more and more in our daily lives---to choose to be our real Selves in every context, living out the fullest and most confident expression of our true Selves?
Three Steps to Choosing Authenticity
Notice the three actions described in Dr. Brown's definition of Authenticity:
- Daily practicing
It's unrealistic to think that all of a sudden, one day we can simply declare, "Okay, I'm perfectly authentic now. I'm good to go."
"Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true Selves be seen." (p. 49)
When you consider that we are making this choice against everything that we've established through the course of life as being "true" about ourselves and what's really important---pleasing others at our own expense, living up to everyone else's expectations, letting every situation determine how "real" we should be, hiding behind masks, or trying hard to be someone we're really not---it's no wonder authenticity is a daily, even moment by moment, choice. We have to practice it regularly. We have to develop a new normal.
Authenticity is a process of becoming---a journey into being more fully genuinely ourselves. So our practice demands: "In this moment, faced with a choice of how I'll show up in this situation, I choose authenticity. In this moment, I choose to be real and genuine and honest. I will not hide myself. In this moment, I will not let fear of what others might say or think dictate how I show up. I choose to let my Self be expressed. In this moment, I will be Me to the best of my knowledge and ability and in a spirit of respect, love, and compassion."
- Letting go of who we think we're supposed to be
We have to stop living our lives based on other people's expectations and standards. We need to respect and honor their choices. But we don't have to emulate them. We are each unique individuals. We have to let our masks go. We have to let go of our attempts to squeeze into someone else's mold. We have to let go of our obsession with pleasing and seeking approval in order for us to feel good about ourselves.
For a trapeze artist to let go of the trapeze and fly through nothing but empty air takes courage. It's scary and even risky.
So is letting go of false identities---especially if we've lived them for a long time. We end up flying through uncertainty, even at times lack of clarity about who we are. We risk rejection and lack of acceptance. People close to us might actually like us the way we've been. We might "fail" at being Ourselves. Yes, it takes courage to let go.
But we can't grab a hold of the true identity (the other trapeze bar) without letting go of the false.
- Embracing who we really are
Think of a time when you felt really true to yourself, when you felt completely safe, loved, accepted, honest, when you felt really strong and energized. What was happening? How were you showing up?
Chances are you were actually being your true Self. That's what you have to embrace and grab a hold of. That's the new trapeze bar you've been flying through space to catch.
That story you remember is a snapshot of your Authenticity. Remember it. Relish it. Visualize it again and again. Those powerful positive memories will give you courage to choose Authenticity again and again. Embrace who you really are.
Embrace vulnerability. Let go of the need for perfection, even in trying to be You. Give yourself permission to fail, to make mistakes, to not do it really well every single time you embrace You. That's okay. You're on the journey of Authenticity.
Embrace compassion for your Self and for others. Remember that you are made of both strength and struggle, as Brene Brown puts it.
Embrace that your greatest gift to the world---to everyone around you---the gift that God has given you and you alone, is You. No one else is or can be You. Stand in your Truth and that truth will set you and everyone around you free. Only Authenticity gives freedom. Don't deprive the world of your Authentic You.
So next time, when the situation arises and says, "Will the real You please stand up," jump to your feet, hold your head high, and with joy reply, "Here I am, you lucky people!" :) And the rest of us will the better because of it. So will You.
E.E. Cummings once wrote, "To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself---means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight---and never stop fighting."
Wow! That statement really hits me deeply because I know that to be true in my life experience. There's a reason so many people don't go on the search for their authentic self---because it's so hard, sometimes even painful, definitely difficult. You're often battling against your own powerful limiting beliefs, against other people's expectations of and choices for you. It's easier to deny that nagging thought that we might not really be living our authentic selves.
No wonder it often takes a crisis to shake us off our pedestal, forcing us to go on the search for authenticity. When we choose to push against the system of our own beliefs and others' expectations, the system pushes back. You've felt that, haven't you? The systems in our lives use shame, guilt, religious dogmas (which in essence is using the "God" card---"you're going against God's will for you!"). We're told we're being selfish and narcissistic, thinking only of ourselves. "You just need to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. After all, didn't Jesus say, 'Take up your cross and follow me?' Remember, life isn't just about you." Those messages are deeply personal and painfully powerful to go up against.
Talk about strong push back. It always happens when you choose to practice authenticity, stepping into the full expression of your true self.
I remember walking the streets, sometimes in the middle of the night, wrestling and struggling with the implications of my choice to live my life rather than the life so many others I looked up to were telling me I was obligated to live. I felt so alone. The weight of the world burdened me down, sometimes even literally, as I felt the loss of so much I had valued in the past. The push back on every level was intense.
But little by little I began to realize that the alternative was even more potentially damaging. Even medical experts these days are recognizing this truth. Here's the way Dr. Brene Brown states it, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are:
"If you're like me, practicing authenticity can feel like a daunting choice---there's risk involved in putting your true self out in the world. But I believe there's even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don't just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. I think we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief." (p. 53)
Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think we should be just isn't worth it. There might be some short term pay offs (like superficial and conditional acceptance, affirmation, kudos). But the long term damage, as she points out, are brutal.
So what do you do when you're experiencing the Big Push Back? Brene Brown says she repeats three simply phrases to herself:
Don't shrink. Don't puff up. Stand on your sacred ground.
That's right. Your true Self is sacred ground. It's who God sees you to be and believes for you.
That's why Jesus, when the Devil tempted him to doubt his true Self, refused ... three times in a row ... in the middle of the hot desert ... when he was at his tiredest, hungriest, weakest.
"I don't need to do anything to prove myself to you, Devil, or to please anyone else's expectations for me. I know my truth because it came straight from the mouth of God when He told me, "You are my Beloved Son; I believe in you; I'm proud of you! Period!"
So next time you're feeling the Big Push Back, whether from your own inner doubts or other people or powerful institutions, remember to do three things:
Don't shrink! Don't puff up! Stand on your Sacred Ground!
And when you do, remember you're in good company. Even Jesus did that.
So here's to choosing authenticity. Here's to fighting the good fight. Here's to all the health and well being that come from standing in your truth.
And if you need some support to do this, write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll suggest some ways I can be helpful. GregoryPNelson.com