Recently I was sat on the tube mildly fascinated by a young woman who was applying her make up mid-journey. I was partly admiring her ability to maintain stable fingers whilst the train swayed. I was partly saddened by her felt need to apply so much make up.
Over the course of the journey she had perfected the shading on her face – key areas lightened, others darkened, contours defined etc. What struck me was that by the end of the process, once she had created a flawless appearance, this young, pretty woman didn’t look so human. Somehow a warmth was lost underneath the layers.
I appreciate that this can sound hugely judgemental. Who am I to judge how someone should look and present themselves? I agree that this is true, but my reaction felt less about her personally. In fact, it wasn’t really anything to do with her make up. I was more saddened by what I felt it reflected culturally and reminded me of how I used to live my life.
It struck me how we can often exert huge effort trying to present our ‘most perfect’ self to others in order to feel worthy of acceptance and connection. This is probably not helped by the consumer marketing-machine that informs us that we would be happier and more popular if we had whiter teeth, were taller / shorter, thinner / curvier etc. We therefore do all we can to show up as our most bright and shiny self, trying to cover up our perceived flaws hoping this will make us acceptable for the human connection that is one of our basic needs.
But, if we walk out into the world trying to cover up our emotional or physical flaws and hide life’s blemishes, does it really allow for true connection or increase our sense of isolation? Does it add to our sense of exhaustion when we expend huge effort to cover over the parts of us that we feel we should hide? For me this is where the power of self-compassion comes in.
Kristen Neff, one of the leading figures in both teaching and evidencing self-compassion practices talks about how a key component of self-compassion is recognising our common humanity. That what makes us human includes our joys and pleasures but also our pain and challenges. Rather than our perceived flaws and vulnerabilities being what isolates us from others, they are actually what connects us. We recognise that others too feel like this sometimes; others too make mistakes. Rather than feeling shame at these qualities we can hold ourselves softly and tenderly and recognise how human we are. The yoga teacher Judith Lasater uses the phrase “How very human of me!”. It is one that I use myself and pass onto clients regularly.
I love these words from Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion.
“If we were perfect, we wouldn’t be human; we’d be Barbie and Ken – plastic figures that look good, but are as dead as doorknobs. Warm, breathing, human life is a constantly unfolding wonder, not a state of flawless sameness. Being alive involves struggle and despair as well as joy and glory. To demand perfection is to turn our backs on real life, the full range of human experience.”
Real connection occurs when we show up as our true self. It happens when we allow ourselves to be seen in our full humanness, which includes mistakes and mess as well as fun times and happiness. I know that all the genuine connections I have made in life have come from that basis.
It struck me that it is not just about feeling worthy of love and connection with others but also feeling love and connection with ourselves. Are we too waiting for ourselves to be a little bit more perfect before we are worthy of our own love and acceptance? Self-compassion is the tool that allows us (both within our practice and within life) to show up as we are and meet it with kindness. We don’t dismiss our flaws and mistakes, we see them clearly, but meet them with gentle understanding and move forward mindfully without adding harsh layers of judgement to them.
So if you, like me, are a bit of a recovering perfectionist you might ask yourself, is it helping you to achieve real connection with yourself and others? Does it fuel connection or a sense of isolation? Can we meet our perceived flaws and difficulties with a kind awareness rather than hiding them from ourselves and others?
And if you find that this is a subject that you are keen to learn more about I would highly recommend the books Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.
Happy Valentines Day everyone and be loving towards your very human self.