Chasing a perfect life
Do you ever wake up after a bad night’s sleep and you’re angry with the world and everything in it? There are certain moments during the day, week or month, when the slightest thing can make us snap and lose control. We need moments to alleviate the tension we’re building up inside by holding everything in so as to be ‘proper’ and sane. Or at least to appear to be calm and, well…’normal’. But what is normal, in a world that so forcefully tries to convince itself it is embracing difference, uniqueness and diversity?
People interpret words and circumstances differently. It is unavoidable. And it all comes down to how each of our minds functions.
We are so used to complaining and moaning about all the problems in our lives, most of which are created by our own negative thoughts. We fear of letting them go, of taking a risk and being happy, because we are unfamiliar with that sentiment. We have clenched such a strong grip on the unpleasantness in our lives that anything else seems too much of a leap into uncertainty.
It’s almost as if we persuade ourselves that this stance of misery is the norm. That this is how it should be and we inflict shame upon ourselves for not being someone else, for not being more or less of what we picture as an ideal, of what society illustrates as how people should be. And that shame brings numbness to every emotion. Because, as we try to block out our feelings of grief and embarrassment and irritation at not being perfect, we also numb those of joy, satisfaction and lightness. We refuse to accept our vulnerability, out of shame, and instead shut ourselves down from the inside, alienating everyone around us in the process.
In searching for meaning and purpose in our lives, we may turn to self-help. We think we can fix ourselves and be happy if we follow certain books of wisdom and guidance on how to live. It’s an industry worth $11 billion, but does it actually help? In her witty, poignant and inspiring book “Help Me!”, Marianne Power goes through a dozen self-help books in a quest for perfection and happiness. But she also goes through a breakdown – or ‘spiritual awakening’ – as she gets too close with the thoughts in her head. She discovers that humans have an innate need to love, be loved and belong, and rejection hurts because we rely on the approval of the group for our survival since our cave-men days. She notes that self-help creates “unrealistic standards about how great life should be, puts unrealistic pressure on yourself to change, and creates self-obsession”; but the more you try to improve who you are, the more you are aware of the flaws, and the more you chase happiness, the unhappier you become.
In “The Power of Now”, Eckhart Tolle reassures us that we all have a voice in our head, which is usually mean and talks us down. It is one that takes us away from the only thing that is real and will give us peace – being right here, right now. If we can quieten down the voice, we’ll realise we are perfectly happy in this very moment. And like British playwright Dennis Potter said: “We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense”.
In her very inspiring TED speech, Brené Brown explores the depth and source of human connection, understanding vulnerability, feeling empathy and confronting shame. She explains that we’re all constantly afraid of not being good enough, with the underlying fear that we won’t be loved, and so we strive harder to be perfect. But instead of chasing perfection, she says we should be seeking connection, to empathise and understand each other, to talk honestly and openly about our fears, insecurities and doubts. “Healing comes from sharing your story with someone who is worthy of hearing it”, she states. “Connection is why we’re here; it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives”. And it all centres around this. For shame, is the fear of disconnection, of not being worthy enough; the “gremlin who says you’re not good enough”. But for connection to happen, we need to allow ourselves to truly be seen, to expose ourselves and be vulnerable. Those who achieve this are whole-hearted people, ones who are courageous enough to show their authentic selves (‘courage’, after all, derives from the Latin word ‘cor’=heart), who acknowledge they are imperfect and who demonstrate compassion by being kind to themselves first and then to others.
The path for a whole-hearted living, according to Dr. Brown’s research, is to be willing to let go of who we think we should be in order to be who we are. To be willing to plunge into something where there are no guarantees, to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out, to practice gratitude in times of terror, to believe we’re enough, and ultimately to simply stop controlling and predicting life and just…live it. She concludes that “joy comes to us in moments – ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary”.
And like Marianne Power eventually realizes – happiness depends on getting up in the morning and being a decent person. Or like her Irish mother, eloquently put it, just “do no harm”.
In the end, there is a truth that when we stop pursuing happiness and the ‘perfect’ life, we will encounter all that matters and we need.