“You are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” ~Shunryu Suzuki-roshi
A few weeks ago, I had a day that I felt like an utter failure.
I had eaten junk food even though I was trying to get healthy. I’d skipped out on going to the gym for no good reason. I forgot to call my parents even though I promised them I would. I didn’t meet my daily writing goals and ended up watching two movies I’d already seen.
In other words, I slid into a lot of bad habits all at once.
I think we all know the feeling you get after a day like that.
I was spinning out of control, losing hold on everything I’d managed to build so carefully over so many months.
My grip on order felt slippery at best, like trying to catch a determined fish with your bare hands. I remember sitting down on the floor and just crying, full of the shame that comes with letting yourself down.
The worst part? It was the third day in a row I’d felt this way. It was the third in a series of days in which I’d gone to bed feeling like my life was falling apart on my watch.
I felt like the ultimate letdown, consistently messing up something that I knew was in my control. It was my life! Why was I having so much trouble getting a handle on it?
Then I remembered someone long ago who had said to me, “You are perfect just as you are, but you are still growing.”
I don’t remember who said that or in what context this little olive branch was offered to my soul, but like all integral memories, it surfaced at just the right time. I got off the floor, brushed myself off, and said, “I’ll do better tomorrow.”
And I did.
As a writer, I let myself down all the time. I don’t reach my word quota. I watch too much TV when I should be working. I forget my house chores, the gym, the cat. I eat badly because I’m eager to get back to work, or I take a long lunch to procrastinate something important.
But even before I was writing, back when I was in the medical field, I remember that there wasn’t a day that passed where I wouldn’t let myself down in some small way. Forgot to take out the trash. Said something thoughtless or rude. Ate more than my fill.
This wormhole is a tempting one to enter, the I’m-not-good-enough black spiral of thoughts that can suck you in forever. Your brain is always happy to supply an infinite list of reasons that you’re not good enough, smart enough, loving enough, witty enough, pretty enough, and so on.
And if you feed that cycle, fixating on all the tiny ways you failed, then it comes back. You condition your brain to think that you want those thoughts, so it offers more of them.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
What if we all forgave ourselves for the little failures? What if we let go of the tiny mishaps that happen in a day and focus instead on what went well? What if we released the shame and pain of all the ways we didn’t measure up and allowed ourselves to relish in everything we already are?
It’s an old argument, but it bears repeating because it’s a practice that must be rehearsed every day. I know I’m human. I know I’ll fail. I’m not perfect, and that’s part of the beauty of life. I am perfectly imperfect, an exquisite human specimen who’s doing the best with what she’s got.
However, accepting that doesn’t mean we are allowed to stagnate, because we are still improving. We can fail today and aim to do better tomorrow.
We need not feel ashamed or inferior because of slip-ups. All we need to feel is normal, accepting the challenges of a life on this Earth with patience and grace.
Taking it one day at a time, we can always do better tomorrow.
I started focusing on this practice after my meltdown week. Ever since then, I’ve tried focusing on doing the best that I can on a given day.
I give every task my all, give all my love to my friends and family, pour all my energy into whatever I’m doing. And I don’t (or at least try not to) focus on how I fall short. I do the best that I can that day, and when I feel like it didn’t bring me as close to my goal as I wanted it to, I simply say “I’ll do better tomorrow.”
Because that’s all I can do.
In this bustling, high-speed country, I think we all strive for our slice of perfection. We fight for the perfect body, marriage, home, kids, job, etc. without any real idea of what that fight is doing to our psyche.
What’s the point in pursuing perfection if we don’t get to enjoy the journey there? And the shame we gather in not reaching the ludicrously unattainable goals we set for ourselves dulls the bright colors of our life.
This toxic feeling of inadequacy is a poison that will ruin the pleasure of striving for a goal. Not only that, shame will make the pursuit of a goal that much more difficult. Negative reinforcement and mentally beating yourself up will halt any progress in its tracks, and that will only push the spiral deeper.
Fight this venom before it ruins your days.
Self-forgiveness and acceptance are the counter-wind to that inner tornado.
Allowing yourself to be human, perfect as you are, enough will bring you far more joy than focusing on all the ways you are insufficient.
Don’t be ashamed of what you’re not, be joyful in what you are! You are a human being, struggling to be better, but whole and perfect in this moment.
And we’re all right there with you.
Woman in a cage image via Shutterstock