The Downside of Perfection

We humans tend to want to create perfection in ourselves, in others, in our relationships or in our work. Perfection doesn’t exist. Even if it did, I’m not sure it would be a good thing.

  • Harold Kushner, author of How Good Do We Have to Be? says that only god can be perfect. People can never be perfect because we’re human, and to assume we are is assuming that we can be gods.
  • Perfection means that you can never be wrong, that you never can grow. To me, failing to grow means you’re stagnating and dying, like the plants in my kitchen.
  • Perfection means that you’re never wrong and always right. That makes others wrong. That mindset is a block to intimacy because it fails to appreciate the reality, humanity and perspectives of others.
  • Perfection means that you can do no wrong. That means that you cannot look at what you do an eye toward improvement.
  • Perfection is a delusion that we cultivate but that fantasy is obvious to others. It’s like a joke that everyone else laughs at but we just don’t get, or the affair that is commonly known by everyone but the spouse. We are the only ones clueless to it.
  • Perfection is literally not pretty. Artists and craftsmen often intentionally add a flaw, because something that is completely pristine seems surreal and, ironically, flawed.
  • Needing to be perfect means we’re not being present. We’re ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. The present moment, on the other hand, is always perfect because it is the only thing that has any degree of certainty. Failing to be present also prevents us from accessing our positive emotion because we’re living in our head.
  • Being perfect is as un-human as immortality.   With no death, there can be no life (what would we eat?). Our planet would deteriorate as the living organisms co-existed in a zombie-like state for eternity. Sounds like hell to me.
  • Failing to be perfect does not mean that something is wrong. It means that something is right: that we’re living with humility and openness to the human experience.

Feeling imperfect can be painful. The realization opens us up to feelings of possible rejection and inadequacy. So the solution seems to be to embrace how you suck. Suck with style. Own it. Be proud of it.  Be even prouder of how you suck a little less than you used to.

In that vein, I’ll leave this blog as it is.   As they say, you really can have too much of a good thing.


Dealing With Disappointments and Setbacks

Sure, our lives often don’t unfold as we planned.   We had hoped to get hired, a negative biopsy, that raise, award, invitation or appreciation that we’ve been longing for.

Then it doesn’t materialize.

Or maybe something bad happened. An assault, a theft, an accident, an illness.

I would imagine our first reaction is, “what’s wrong with me?”   Our second reaction might be, “what’s wrong with you/them?” Or, “what’s wrong with the world?”

What if no one is wrong, nothing is wrong, and everything is right, even if it doesn’t feel that way? Eckhart Tolle says that everything that happens is meant to happen because it did happen.   And according to Shakespeare, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In other words, events are neutral. The meaning that we assign to it is what can make us unhappy or anxious. If we view an event as negative, we will feel bad. If we view the event as an opportunity, we will feel excited.

How do we take terrible events and turn them into something positive? I believe there is a silver lining to everything. It is our job, if we wish to leave a peaceful and happy life, to find that silver lining and make the most of it.

I know that you have done the same, or experienced it at some point in your life. Here are some examples of how disappointing outcomes in my life have ended up being good things, either by my own design or accident:

  • Being socially awkward as a teenager – Though I missed out on developing some key social skills as an adolescent, I spent that time learning about and affirming myself which started me on this path I’m on now.
  • Challenging family relationships – I had to really look to myself to understand my role in these challenging relationships and how I can grow both a better me and relationship at the same time.
  • Didn’t get into Harvard, Yale, or even Rice University – None of those schools have Colleges of Pharmacy. I would not be in this field that I love and which has so much opportunity if I had gone to an ivy league college.
  • The job offer turned into a hiring freeze – OK, so I might actually be rich now if that job materialized. But I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do a job that I love working with students and faculty to help create a better, healthier world.
  • Developing chronic pain issues – Made me stop and learn to take care of myself instead of running myself into the ground. Also made me really really appreciate when I am pain-free.
  • A career that was killing me – As my marriage failed, so did my pursuit of the traditional publish-or-perish academic lifestyle. It was killing me, which was the indicator that I was on the wrong path and needed to look elsewhere. So I did.
  • Failed marriage – Like my painful adolescence, a bad marriage was also fertile ground for self-exploration, relationship development and personal growth. It didn’t work out in the traditional sense, but we have two amazing boys and an abundance of precious life lessons as a result.
  • Failed friendships – Certain friendships I thought were going to make it in the long run didn’t. Their dissolution meant I had more time to invest in the ones that have survived the decades.
  • My kids didn’t turn out perfect. Neither did I for that matter – Thank goodness. Perfection is a heavy burden to bear and precludes growth.
  • Death of a loved one – Death is inevitable but is particularly unfortunate when someone dies “before their time.”   Death creates a void, an a void provides an opportunity to fill it with something positive, but different:  a new purpose, new habits, new perspective, or a growth challenge.

Now if I take the time to look at all the things that have gone well or beyond expectation in my life, then I feel replete with blessings and good fortune. Tolle again says it better than I can ever hope:

“People believe themselves to be dependent on what happens for their happiness. They don’t realize that what happens is the most unstable thing in the universe. It changes constantly. They look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn’t have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have. And so they miss the deeper perfection that is inherent in life itself, a perfection that lies beyond what is happening or not happening. Accept the present moment and find the perfection that is untouched by time.”

Planning Your Future

Mr Toad's wild ride

Mr Toad’s wild ride

As a young girl, I used to envision what my life would be like. The dream was probably just like the imaginings of every other little girl, more or less: beautiful family with amazing children, handsome husband that doted on me, upper middle class and living in a nice neighborhood, job that provided meaning, respect and a comfortable living.

I had expectations around each of those things. The children were amazing, but that necessarily meant respectful, talented, attractive, smart, good students, etc. And so it was for each item on my list.   In other words, I had a fairly detailed idea of how things should be.

You know what they say: Man plans. God laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with having a vision for what you want your life to be like. But now that I look back, I know that it’s ridiculous, at best, to be psychologically invested in each of those details. At worst, being so tied to a particular outcome is damaging to self and others.

I had to learn that lesson the hard way. Sticking with the kids example, those of you who have parented probably realize that getting them to fit into the stereotype of the perfect child will likely only produce the opposite effect. Not that we can’t encourage and teach them to grow up in a certain way.   In the end, they must decide how to live their own lives. Failure to accept that reality can damage the relationship and teach our children that their authentic selves are unacceptable or not lovable.

We may also be drawing the same conclusions about ourselves when we fail to meet our own narrowly defined expectations.

Now, I try to use the metaphor of aiming my life toward the broad side of a barn, or maybe more appropriately, a small city. I know the general direction and I steer there, but realize that many detours (whether obstacles or opportunities – you can’t always tell the difference) will divert me to possibly a better path. Aiming for too narrow an objective can create frustration and damage and cause us to miss something wonderful that we previously haven’t considered as an option.

In other words, sometimes life is even more rich and wonderful than our wildest imaginings. Why would we want to limit life to only what we can picture at that young and naïve age when we first envision our perfect life?

Life is a beautiful journey full of unknown surprises and wonder. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

On the Verge of Death

What if you had a 50% chance of not waking up tonight and every night thereafter?

A 50% chance means that you can’t give up your job, move to Nepal, or do anything else really drastic because you still have to live your life.

Or can you?

In other words, if your odds of dying each day are pretty substantial, I’d bet that we would get our priorities in order and live each day more fully.

If we have a horrible job or relationship, we may decide it’s no longer worth suffering, and make a change by either improving it, fixing it, replacing it, or removing it.

If there is something that we’ve been longing to do or have, perhaps we would strive to do it or to obtain it.  Perhaps that something is a motorcycle, a trip to a special place, a visit to a special person, forgiveness, or peace of mind.

If we have something that we’ve been longing to remove, maybe we’d decide to get rid of it.  Unwanted weight, debt, anger or resentment might be on top of the list.

If there is something you’ve been taking for granted, take a moment to appreciate it.   All those moments don’t add up to that much time in a day, so go ahead and indulge.   Perhaps it is a loved one, your good fortune, something that you do well but have failed to recognize, the taste of your morning coffee, or the beauty of the craftsmanship of your spoon.

Take a moment to give it some serious reflection, because in the end, we don’t really know our chances of living to see the next day.   Odds are hopefully in our favor, but you never know.

Now, make a list of the things you’d do differently, and go do them.

“Other People Matter”

Our professors told us that this quote by Chris Peterson summed it all up on our first day in our positive psychology graduate program.   At the time, I thought to myself “oh sure.”  But it’s true.

Here’s what I learned:

  • People in positive relationships are physically healthier and heal faster.
  • People in positive relationships have more positive emotions and are more resilient. Positive relationships help children become more resilient.
  • People who give have more positive emotion than those who receive.   Also, givers tend to be more successful than takers.
  • The meaning and purpose we feel in our lives largely pertains, ultimately, to our impact on others.
  • Our motivation to do a task depends on whether we can relate the task to impact on others or relevance to a larger goal.
  • Positive relationships enable an organization to rise to the next level.
  • Employee engagement is causally related to profitability and strongly related to having a best friend at work.
  • Our well-being is directly related to how much social time we get each day. Studies show that 5-6 hours per day provides the peak amount of well-being.
  • Our entire community impacts our well-being.   The friends of my friends and the colleagues of my colleagues can measurably impact how I feel each day.

In other words, the people in our lives make our lives worth living and also help us to live a good life.  The opposite is also potentially true.

Therefore, is your attention, energy and priorities where they should be?

Are You Fixed or Growth Oriented?

Before you answer this question, it probably requires a bit of explanation.  A fixed mindset refers to the philosophy that we are who we are and that we cannot change.  A growth mindset believes that we can grow and improve.

The advantage of a fixed mindset is that a person is fairly consistent across time and situation.  If you’re marrying someone with a fixed mindset, you’re likely to have the same person more or less for decades to come.  It’s predictable and you don’t have to worry about that person changing too dramatically as you get into your golden years.

The other advantage of a fixed mindset is that you don’t have to worry too much about who you are.  Introspection and self-assessment is a waste of time, as is the notion of trying to change someone else.   A tendency to accept others as they are is an especially nice trait!

The disadvantage of a fixed mindset is that fixed individuals are less resilient.  If you think about it, the ol’ self may work in many situations, but if additional skills or perspectives are needed, it may be more difficult to manage if you believe you cannot rise to meet the new situation or adjust your viewpoint.

I’ll throw out another disadvantage, which is purely from my perspective.  If I had a fixed mindset, I might be stuck as I was when I was 20-something.  Those of you who have been reading my blog know that my 20-something was not someone to brag about.    I guess others were more likely to be perfectly formed and accessorized in their 20’s to deal gracefully with all of life’s situations.  I sure wasn’t.

‘Course, I would surmise if you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably of the growth mindset and I’m somewhat preaching to the choir.  But like the other personality types, you growth folk can use this information to better understand the other half of the world that doesn’t love self-help in some fashion.

I know.  No one is perfect.  J

Stuck in Anger and Resentment

I think one of the most impactful changes I have made in my life was learning to avoid getting stuck in anger and resentment towards others.  I used to just spend hours or even days just seething with resentment about how someone else was doing wrong, being wrong, mistreating me or someone else, or making the wrong decision. I was unable to see how they could be so misguided when the truth or right path was so obvious.

Sometimes I was right. More likely I was wrong. It didn’t matter though because either way I was spending a lot of time and energy on something that was not mine to decide. Whenever I go there, I give away my personal power, ability to be at peace and control of my mental faculties in exchange for feeling self-righteous and judgmental.

Granted, it’s a bit different if I had responsibility for the outcome of the situation and it was part of my job or role to take action. In that case, my opinion is germane and I have a responsibility to either learn about the others’ perspective and/or do something about it. Still, getting upset will not help me make a good decision about how to proceed.

But most of the time I’d get worked up about something that really wasn’t my business or my place to decide, even if it impacted me. For example, I might not like how my best friend makes decisions about her life. But it’s her life, even if the repercussions might have an impact on me eventually. In the past I might’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince her of the ‘right thing to do.’ At best it’s a waste of time. At worst I can be giving bad advice (who am I to know how she should live her life?) and I could be harming our relationship by judging her or her actions.

So here’s what I try to do when I’m stuck in the Judging Others and Their Actions Mode:

  • Calm down and get some emotional distance – If I’m emotional and overly invested in an outcome that’s none of my business, I’m not likely to be using my best judgment.
  • Know what I actually have control over – Most of the time I only really have control over my own thoughts, feelings and actions. The less real control I have over a situation, the more I should let it go. Nagging someone else does not count as having control.
  • Look for judgment – It’s easy to armchair quarterback someone else’s life but I don’t know what’s going on in their world, even if I think I do. They have a different view of the world and different values than I do. Those differences don’t make them wrong or bad, just because I don’t understand them.
  • Assume they’re doing their best under the present circumstances – Imagine what kind of circumstances could lead them to these behaviors. It does not mean that you have to agree with their choices. It simply allows you to see how a reasonable person might make the same decision.
  • Consider how you would want to be treated in this situation – I’m sure you don’t want to be judged or criticized if you are struggling with a similar situation.   Perhaps a conversation is warranted to see how you can be supportive of them and their journey without encouraging or rewarding the behavior you dislike. This approach has the additional potential benefit of gaining a better understanding of their perspective.
  • Know that bad situations are sometimes good things – Just like negative emotion sometimes spurs positive actions, so do bad situations. We sometimes judge situations to be bad, when they are sometimes opportunities for much needed change and growth.  Keeping that in mind might help to ratchet down the emotion.
  • If they’ve done something that negatively impacts you directly, forgive them for being human. You would want the same courtesy if you’re struggling with a bad situation. That does not mean, however, that you have to tolerate the behavior going forward. Knowing and enforcing your boundaries is not the same as judging.

If you don’t think this person deserves your effort to find a more forgiving and accepting perspective, consider that this accepting perspective is a gift you give yourself. If you are spending time and energy nurturing negative emotion, give yourself the gift of positive emotions such as tranquility, forgiveness and compassion. Your generosity will help you feel better, regain your peace, retain your personal power, and preserve or even enhance your relationship.   If that isn’t a win-win-win, I don’t know what is.

Heading For the Rocks

A calm spot on the James

A calm spot on the James

There is pretty much no place I’d rather be than on the beautiful James River here in Richmond. But I think I’d rather be soaking my feet in the river rather than trying to navigate the rapids from the water’s surface.

I took my second kayaking lesson this past weekend, the first lesson nearly two decades ago (obviously it did not captivate me then either). Most people are surprised to learn that the James has Class 4-5 rapids running through downtown, and that the water is clean enough to swim in and fish from. The part of the river on which I was trying to learn to kayak was probably Class 1 or 2 at most, fortunately, because I am just not a boatswoman (is that a word?). I’m just terrible at navigating the little boat as it courses through the rapids. It’s just not intuitive for me to figure out how to steer, especially as the situation rapidly (haha) changes.

Welcome to life, Susanna.

Indeed, the more that I see rocks or a stalled family member that I want to avoid, the more likely I am to end up beached or worse, flipped over on said rocks or family.

The upside is that – hey, we’re all in this together – and now we have many laugh-worthy moments.

The other upside is that – hey, I finally figured out that the 20-year old guide taught me an important lesson that I of course didn’t listen to. He said to look to where you want to go, not the rock you’re trying to avoid because you unconsciously steer to the place you’re looking.

It’s true for life. Why would paddling be any different?

It’s hard not to look sometimes. Those rocks and pileups are like an accident on the side of the freeway that you just can’t help but stare at. But I know if I gawk, I will slow the traffic for those behind me, or worse, end up creating an accident for myself or others.

My own life is that way too. Sometimes I can’t help but focus on the grotesque and the problems and the failures and the logjams. When I do, I inevitably become part of the problem rather than the solution.   Unlike paddling the river, being part of the logjam is not so laugh-worthy.

Toward the end of the journey, I started to do much better by focusing on the path I wanted to pursue as opposed to the rocks or pileup I wanted to avoid. I ended up doing better and feeling more in control of my destiny. The small successes started to build my confidence that I am not mere tinder at the mercy of the whims of the river. I learned that I can control the focus of my attention and thus chart my course both metaphorically and literally.

So can you. Bon voyage and smooth sailing, fellow travelers!

Swimming Upstream

We had a lovely afternoon last weekend where we rented stand up paddleboards. It was a wonderful experience exploring the river at a leisurely pace, resting when I wanted to rest, savoring when I wanted to savor.

Until I wanted something else. I wanted to go over there. But to get there I had to paddle upstream in an area where the water was rushing relatively fast. So I paddled harder and harder but the best I could do was either stay in one place or make slow progress but often spinning into the wrong direction.

I had three choices: keep doing what I was doing (which wasn’t working); try a different tack (literally); go do something else.

Given the time and my interest level, I decided on the third. I went and explored another part of the river or went and met up with the group, I don’t remember. Either way, I had a great time and my little setback was not at all memorable. The point is, I didn’t ruin my precious hour of my rental tilting at windmills.

So of course the river is a metaphor for our lives. Sometimes everything we try to do, no matter how small, seems to go wrong, not work out, go in a completely different direction than anticipated.   At those times, we can either work harder at same failed strategy and just get more and more frustrated and tired, or we can try something else.

In the calm of our lives or when we have little at stake (such as a traffic jam), this wisdom seems to be pretty obvious. Not so much when we’re frantically trying to control an emotional or otherwise scary situation that feels out of control no matter what we try.  Consider the same traffic jam but now you have a woman in labor in your backseat.  Or worse, you’re the one in labor.  We don’t tend to do as well when under pressure.

The key, I believe, is to recognize the ‘I’m stuck’ flags as soon as possible when starting to feel trapped and frustrated. It’s still so easy for me to just dig in and work harder, fight harder, or get upset and cry and feel sorry for myself when I’m in the midst of the rushing stream. However, the best thing I have ever done while feeling hopeless, trapped and discouraged is to get calm, I mean really calm, and look at the situation without emotion and fresh eyes. How would a stranger view it? How would the others involved in this situation view it? What would happen if I put my pride and ‘should’ statements aside and did what was healthiest or most loving for me or the other person? Often I would find a new path or conclusion different from the one I had been operating on, just as I did on that lovely part of the river last weekend.

So negative emotion is not all bad. It is there to remind us that a new tack or a new focus is sometimes needed. Negative emotion is our teacher, not our enemy; treasure it as the cue to float downstream and get a different view.

Succumbing to turbulence

Succumbing to turbulence