The Myth of Perfection

There’s this quote by Brene Brown that became really popular:

“You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

That sounds really cute an’ all, but what does it actually mean?

I think I’ve found an answer.
And it came to me by way of someone else’s wisdom:

“life is hard sometimes, and we aren’t told that when we are kids”

Ah. Yes.

I have a story, and it involves my hairy legs.

Growing Hairy Legs

When I reached puberty, at around the age of 12, I began to grow hair on my legs. Much like everyone else.
Except that, for me, it seemed to be a different experience than it was for other girls. And by “different” I mean “a fresh version of Hell”.

I was angry. So, so angry at so many things.
But I was particularly angry at this: why did nobody tell me I was going to grow hair on my legs?!?

The videos on “this is what happens to humans as we reach puberty” featured all the usual suspects: periods, penis length, breasts, beards. Oh yes, boys started to grow beards.
Nobody ever said anything about girls growing hair on their legs.

Couple that with the fact that hair on women’s legs is a cultural taboo and you get a very shocked Mary.
Similar to Carrie, when she discovers one day that she’s bleeding and doesn’t understand why.

I was fuming. Why did nobody tell me this was going to happen? Why did Mum never tell me I was going to grow hair on my legs???

I remember thinking: did Mum secretly hope I would not grow any hair on my legs?

Let’s pause on this for a moment.
See, it is possible for women to grow hair so fine that’s almost invisible.
This, for a Spanish woman, is extremely unlikely.
For reasons unknown to me, we appear to be the hairiest race on Earth. (Seriously, why the Hell?!? White women don’t have any hair, neither do Indian women, African women, Asian women. WHY ARE SPANISH WOMEN SO HAIRY?!? Answers on a postcard)

And for a daughter of my mother, this would have been… impossible.
But you see, this is probably the kind of beneficent mutation that all parents secretly count on.
Like “yeah, it’s true that neither of us is blond and blue eyed, but who knows? Genetics work in weird ways, and it is technically possible for a child of mine to not inherit things I don’t like about my own body and turn out magically perfect”.

So yes, I could have somehow won the genetic lottery and turned out suspiciously hairless.
That’s always the problem though: the “could”.

And this is the point of my story.

We always “could have done better”

Nobody tells us that life is hard because parents, and the wider culture, secretly hope that, somehow, we will bypass all the problems in life and turn out “perfect”.

There is some logic to this. When you look at individual problems, almost anything that ever goes wrong “could” have gone right, if people had done differently.

I could have avoided my accident last December if I hadn’t attempted something stupid while cycling.
I could have avoided almost every bruise I’ve had this lifetime if I had moved a few inches to the side.
I could have avoided years of poverty and misery if I had studied law at University.

The list is endless, and you get the point: when we look at every problem and unpleasant situation we have had in life, we realise we could have avoided it if we had done “differently”.
This creates the impression that it is possible to avoid all problems, forever.

Our entire culture runs on this premise.
Accidents are not just “accidents”. Someone somewhere screwed up, and we have to make sure that the lessons are learned so that the accident doesn’t happen again, ever.
After any undesired outcome, people’s first and only response is “how can we make sure this never happens again”.
In other words: how can we be “perfect”?

The alternative to reaching for perfection

This is precisely the reason why the Buddha said “all life is suffering”. He was hammering in the point because our ego, the part of us that wants to believe “perfection” is tenable, will cling on to anything.

The alternative to going through life expecting to fix “all the problems”, is to get really good at bouncing back.

Flexibility. That’s the skill we’re missing.
The goal is not “how do we fix all the problems forever”, but rather “we won’t be able to fix all the problems forever, so how do we learn to bounce back after they happen”.

Nobody ever teaches us how to do this. Our culture has no concept of the power of flexibility.
And we pass along the message to children that they have to be “perfect”, that a life devoid of problems and struggle is possible, if we work hard enough.

Parents subconsciously think “I won’t tell my kids that life is hard sometimes, because they may have a perfect life”.

Here’s Brene Brown’s quote, in context:

“our job is not to say, “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect”(…) That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job.”

In other words, know that your children are going to screw up, a lot. And prepare them for it. Let them know that they are worthy of love, no matter what.

The lesson for us all: learn to bounce back

Stop trying to be “perfect”, stop trying to avoid all the problems and screw ups. It’s hopeless anyway.
And get better at “bouncing back”.

Because when you get really good at accepting your mishaps and learning to go on in spite of your imperfections, you get good at loving yourself unconditionally.

And that’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.

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