One of the most common causes of anxiety stems from a belief that one needs to be perfect in order to be accepted by others (or for some, by their God). Those who hold the identity of a “perfectionist” have every reason in the world to do so. It is tied in with their identity and has helped them move forward and try to be a better person. This need to be perfect often comes from some type of a short-coming or difficulty when we are younger—trying to impress an unavailable parent, living in a household with intense conflict, or embarrassing/traumatic moments that was never told to other people because of fear of their rejection.
Perfectionism ultimately comes from a comparison to someone or something (or even one’s self). It is fueled by a fear of rejection! It is a brutal cycle of beating one’s self up and self-loathing. It is also often derived from some internal conflict: knowing that one is not perfect but trying to convince one’s self that he or she has to be.
So, what do we do about it? How do we get out of this vicious cycle? Soren Kierkagaard, a famous Danish philosopher, suggested that there are four steps we can take to help us get out of our need to be perfect and start to love ourselves and others. They are paraphrased as follows:
1. Make fun of other people. Go ahead; make fun of them and all of their terrible imperfections! Try it. It can actually make you feel better for a few seconds. Make fun of the shape of their body, how they parent, how rude they are, and how they are just not good enough in so many ways. This is a crucial first step; you might already be doing it!
2. Make fun of yourself. It is a more challenging one. It is looking in the mirror and realizing that everything we were making fun of about other people is the very thing that we are not perfect at as well! “Oh no, I don’t like the shape of my body, my parenting is not as I would like, I can be rude, and I am not good enough in so many ways.” This step is more cathartic, which is why most people don’t take it. There is an inevitable sorrow that comes with it. It make us more approachable as we have leveled the playing field to be human with all of those other “perfectionists.” Admit and face up to your imperfections. They are there and it is alright.
3. Smile. After we are glaring at all of our imperfections and shortcomings and feeling the sadness that comes with it, we look at ourselves as we truly are and take the third step: smile. It might start out as a one of those half-hearted smirks, but that is a start! Eventually, the smile allows us to laugh at ourselves and stop taking ourselves so seriously. Go ahead, force yourself to smile. You might even like it. This humor has to happen to get to the last and most rewarding step, it is a bridge to get us to where we want to be.
4. Love. Not just love for other people, but a genuine love and acceptance of our unique gifts and unique imperfections. As we love others, they will love us. As we love ourselves, others will be drawn to love us as well.
This acceptance is what we were trying to achieve initially through perfectionism, but it wasn’t working. Going through these steps allows us to arrive at loving others and being loved by them.
I have always loved the music from “Les Miserables.” The first time I heard it I was pretty young and told my parents I wanted to hear more from that “Less Miserables!” I never took French, but I am made fun of for my mispronunciation to this day! However, “Les Miserables” is a story about the beauty of imperfection and the power of love. I believe that we love the characters because they are not perfect! In the end, the process of accepting imperfection allows us to do what we have always wanted to do: To love and be loved! Quality relationships and love and acceptance are the sublime experience of being human.
To be “less perfect” is to be “less miserable.” Good luck to you in your journey. I hope these four steps are helpful.
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