A few weeks ago, I shared my great secret with you. I am not perfect. Now I know none of you were surprised by that – except maybe David. But it still took a lot of courage to admit. Because I grew up believing in the Myth of Perfection.
Nothing I ever did seemed good enough. Not for my father. Not for my boyfriend. Not for any teacher that gave me anything but an A+. Not for any employer who didn’t give me 5s in every single category. And most importantly, not for me.
I was always trying to be perfect. To prove myself. To make a perfect impression. And I was constantly beating myself up for falling short of my goal. Can anyone else relate to this? That’s about ___ of you which tells me this is a pretty good topic to be wrestling with as we conclude our month long focus on common humanity.
So first, let’s unpack what a myth is. Myths are the stories that inform and influence the way we feel and behave and the way we expect others to feel and believe. We all have these myths. This is one of the things that unite us in our common humanity. Our individual mythology is made up of the beliefs and convictions we have about ourselves, our relationships and our roles in life. Our myths are the stories we tell that give meaning and shape to our lives.
We all have a main story that serves to connect us to the transcendent events in our lives that we can’t control. For instance, we might see ourselves as the hero who struggles against great odds and yet emerges victorious. Or we might see ourselves standing in awe and gratitude in the midst of surprising gifts and blessings. These stories breathe us into awareness of our own existence and reflect the ongoing call for spiritual renewal in our lives.
Unfortunately, other stories – lesser stories – often take center stage. When this happens we can lose our sense of direction and start questioning the meaningfulness of our lives. These sub myths emerge out of our experiences of being human. They are our way of explaining and integrating our earliest memories, whether or not we felt welcomed and wanted, our birth order, gender, name and nickname, peer and sibling relationships, the roles we played in our family, school experiences, and how our parents related to each other. These stories hold a lot of symbolism and they are critically important because they form the basis of all of our interactions and experiences with other people.
These stories become our person myths. Good personal myths help us deal positively with the potential for self-sabotage. But often they don’t support us in that way. Often, they are contrary forces. Negative personal myths make us more vulnerable to self-defeat and can become strong enough to entirely block our path and derail our journey. If you stay for Talk Back, you’ll get a handout to help you identify your own personal myths. When we can identify and name our personal myths, we can consciously reconstruct the destructive stories that influence our lives.
Negative personal myths almost always are connected to the cultural Myth of Perfection. The myth of perfection permeates our society and raises our expectations of others and of ourselves to unreasonable heights. Whether they are touting beer, toothpaste, cars, or prescription medication we are constantly under a barrage of messages that there is something about us that needs to be better, something we can buy or acquire that will make us a little more perfect.
You all should have a pair of sunglasses with you. I invite you now to put them on. When you look around or even look at your own hands can you see as easily and as clearly as you could before? These sunglasses are like the myth of perfection society happily gives to us. These are the lenses through which we are asked to view the world and through much of the world views us. But the picture isn’t clear and bright. It is dark and distorted.
The myth of perfection tells us we have to be flawless in the way we look. The myth tells us we have to be inerrant in the things we do. The myth tells us we have to be totally free from personal hang ups. Which means that being perfect ultimately requires us to be something other than human, to deny and repress our humanness itself.
And what if we take off the sun glasses? Abandoning the Myth of Perfection means that we begin to live our lives realistically, knowing that our efforts are good enough, that our accomplishments are good enough, and that we are good enough. Abandoning the Myth of Perfection means that we allow our lives to be permeated with forgiving acceptance of our limitations and our flaws. Abandoning the Myth of Perfection gives us the opportunity to live a life that is not driven by the fear of failure, the shame of disappointment, and the insecurity of not measuring up. Letting go of the Myth of Perfection allows us to open up to receive transcendent love.
Falling in Love with Myself
The biggest problem with the Myth of Perfection is that it’s a completely externalized way of relating to the world that completely divorces us from ourselves. First it relies on a comparison between what and who we are and some imaginary “ideal” “out there” that doesn’t even really exist. Next because that imaginary ideal is “out there” we are constantly looking out there to find affirmation for our efforts and validation for our own existence. Any time we rely on anything “out there” to determine the value of who we are “in here” we are asking to live against a backdrop of fear, shame and insecurity.
It’s easy to see the trap of relying on what others think or feel when the feedback we receive is negative. Critical parents, siblings, teachers and spouses are especially good at dragging us further into our illusion of not being good enough. But even when we get positive feedback, as long as we use anything outside of us to measure ourselves, we are treading in dangerous water.
How many of you have ever fallen in love? I mean earth shaking, universe altering, walking on air love? About ___ of you. How many of you have a pet that you love? About ___ of you. How many of you have ever held a baby in your arms that meant the world to you? About ___. So when you fell in love or were greeted by your pet or looked into that baby’s eyes, what did you feel? (shout outs) How did your lover or your pet or that baby feel about you? (shout outs)
One of the reasons we feel so wonderful is that in the process of falling in love with another, we also fall in love with ourselves. We fall in love with ourselves because we begin to see ourselves through the other’s eyes. Someone who sees our beauty and our best intentions. Someone who is willing to overlook our shortcomings and flaws in order to focus on and celebrate all the best of who we are.
And in that magical process we find ourselves overlooking our shortcomings and our flaws. We stop the negative self-talk and the endless stream of criticism. We see the world in brighter light and more vibrant color and find that we too are shining in that world. We look into our heart and like what we see, embrace what we see, love what we see.
But while all of that is wonderful and exciting, it only works on the surface and not in the deep recesses of our own feelings and beliefs. When we use someone else’s eyes to judge ourselves, whether that judgment comes as praise or as criticism, we are still at the mercy of someone else in determining our self worth. We forfeit our own power of self-affirmation. Over time, we become increasingly aware of the need to be what someone else wants us to be. We succumb to the Myth of Perfection.
Because we live in an area that is predominantly Christian and because so many of us have been effected by it, I think it’s important to address one of the most insidious teachings of (let’s say) traditional Christianity: the tying together of the Myth of Perfection, human sinfulness, and the notion of all loving Father God. I believe that it is because of this false teaching that there are people in this room right now who find the word “God” to be a source of discomfort and deep pain. I hope in unpacking this travesty of theology to help heal some of that church inflicted wound.
So here we go… In mainstream Christian theology I am a sinner. I’m fallen. I’m bad. I’m unworthy. I’m damned. And I know that’s so because they give me a perfect measuring stick to compare myself to – a perfect Jesus. It’s insanely easy to compare myself to perfection and see how short I fall. But there is a solution to my miserable condition. There’s also God the Father who is out there and for some reason this God out there loves me – even though I’m clearly undeserving of His love.
This message is perfect, if I dare use that word, for our social conditioning! Think about it. First, our culture does everything it can to instill in us the Myth of Perfection. Our self-esteem is constantly undermined by articles, news reports, books and advertisements telling us everything that is wrong with us and what we need to improve upon. And then we are introduced to God – a God who loves us EVEN THOUGH there’s nothing about us to love!
This view of Christianity and the theology of Jesus saving us from our wretched selves is perfect for our depleted ego. We can hold onto our own feelings of worthlessness AND experience the wonder of falling in love with ourselves – this time through God’s eyes. The one who loves us despite all of our faults. The one who sees us as beautiful and worthy and forgiven. And oh my if we don’t start seeing it, too. There IS something about me worth loving! There IS something beautiful about ME!
Now don’t get me wrong. That really is a good place to start with folks who don’t like themselves to begin with. You can understand why, for instance, many people find this God in prison or in ten step programs. It’s a foothold on a mountain slope of self-criticism. It’s enough to get people on the road to recovery, to get people through times of crisis, to start people on a journey of healing.
But it can’t be where we stop. Not if we want to live as whole human beings who deeply honor our own existence. To stop at the illusion that divine love comes from some place outside of ourselves is to cut ourselves off from the real source of that love. To stop there is to stop midway on the path, with one foot held precariously in the air.
For we all know that spirituality is a journey and that we are always called to more awareness and deeper truths. We need to move on so we don’t get stuck in the myth of needing someone OUT THERE to love us in order for us to be okay, acceptable, loveable. We need to plunge forward on the path of spirituality until we finally arrive at the place and time where we fall in love with ourselves through OUR OWN EYES.
Here’s the thing. Life doesn’t love us. Life is actually pretty neutral about us. In life horrible things happen. Things that we have no control over, that break our hearts and drive us to our knees. No matter how sincere our faith, no matter how invested we are on our spiritual journey, life leaves us standing alone with only our own arms to hold us, our own words to comfort us, our own eyes to see us through. And it is out of that well-spring, when we have no other option left, that we begin to care for our self because no one can do that better than we can. And it is out of that well-spring of self-care that self love finally grows. This is the juncture where we begin to love ourselves AS God loves us and not BECAUSE God or anyone else loves us.
Our true sense of self comes when we are connected to our own Godself – NOT because we are elevated by some external God – but because we are a people enhanced by God/Spirit/Pneuma/Energy/Consciousness in our true humanity. Jesus, who I personally admire and embrace in an imperfect human being uses these words – the kingdom of God is within you. The good news is the blasphemous pronouncement that our eyes ARE God’s eyes – the same eyes that love you from afar are the eyes of your very own soul. These are the eyes that know you most intimately in all of your beauty and with all of your flaws.
As you know, God spelled backward is Dog. To be more fully human, we have to let go of our internalized beliefs about ourselves, the negative stories we carry around with us, in order to see ourselves and our experiences the way God sees us, the way our Dog sees us, the way that baby sees us. We need to take that feeling of acceptance and love that we have sought from outside of ourselves and let it germinate in the core of our being so that we feel it as love emanating from inside of us pouring into ourselves.
Sadly, this isn’t an intellectual pursuit. It isn’t about KNOWING anything. I’ve known this for an awfully long time. In fact, because I knew it, my own Myth of Perfection wanted me to claim it even though I didn’t feel it yet. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. We can’t talk ourselves into loving what we believe is unlovable. We just can’t do it.
But we can cultivate the practice of looking at ourselves through the eyes of grace and love and mercy. We can be intentional about setting self-love as a goal and spending time quietly focusing on and meditating on our own intrinsic perfection and give up trying to be extrinsically perfect. And we can allow our journey to continue until it brings us to the point where we really do know and believe that it is true, that we are already perfect and wholly loveable. And in that moment we will no longer need affirmation from anyone else and no one can ever strip it away from us again.
Creating New Stories
We all have personal myths that inform and influence our life choices. Some of them are helpful, some just aren’t. The good news is we are not hostage to our myths and our stories. We are not powerless within them. Instead we play an active part in developing them. We interpret the events in our lives and we give them meaning and significance. So we can alter the stories and myths that inform our behavior. We can transform the beliefs and convictions we have about ourselves, our relationship with others and how we relate to the transcendent or the divine. We can create new stories.
The nature of myths is to appear fixed and unchangeable. But in the actual process of editing our stories we find that what we once thought was permanent is not only changeable, it has been awaiting transformation. When we see ourselves through the lens of love, we are looking through the eyes of God – not a God who exists “out there” but the God that has been inside of us all along waiting for us to remove the dark sunglasses of self-doubt and insecurity. Then we know, as our Godself has known all along, that we are infinitely worthy, loveable, beautiful, and perfect – in all of our glorious imperfection.