The road from the unattainable to the beauty of the reasonable
Cheryl Kain, guest blogger
Perfection is the enemy of excellence.
I spent my teens through my early forties chasing perfectionism, in everything I wore, wrote, performed, thought, ate, and spoke. My deeply insecure core instinctively poured my “flawed” self into countless self-help books, groups, and ways of creating a “perfect” persona. I’ll break it down for you: In search of the perfect body, I starved myself or, at least, politely deprived it. Leaving the house sans perfectly-nonchalant-but-fiercely-hip outfit was not an option. I needed the perfect vibe or I didn’t deserve Los Angeles to see me.
If I wasn’t a full-time, seven-days-a-week yogini, I was a failure. If my singing career didn’t land me a record deal with a major label and a European tour, then what was the use? If I wasn’t an international celebrity already, then why bother? Life felt frustrating, sad, and heartbreakingly unsatisfying.
What’s insidious about perfectionism—or, more accurately, the pursuit of perfection—is that it leads nowhere. Wait, I take that back. For me, it led to frustration, chronic low self-esteem, heart palpitations, extra weight (funny how dieting can do that), and the soul-crushing feeling that nothing in my life would ever be good enough. I could never seem to do or have or be what was perfect.
The saddest part about my quest for perfect was that it encroached on my sacred space: my yoga practice. I remember going to a famous power yoga class in California. Most of the bodies were perfect, and so were their outfits. There was maybe six inches between mats, and I would stand out like a sore thumb if I simply relaxed in Child’s pose. If I couldn’t power lift myself into Dancer or Camel, I felt like I wasn’t a proper yogini.
What precipitated my letting myself off the hook? My mother, who was my best friend, died. Losing her, traveling the long, unpredictable road of grief, and learning to function as a parentless adult required a staggering amount of effort. In addition, turning 50 further encouraged me to redefine my life. Walking through excruciating pain eventually led to profound clarity. I gained a visceral understanding of how brief our time on earth is; I simply did not have the energy to angst over what had become completely unimportant. I had a finite amount of energy to spend during each 24 hours. I officially resigned from using my precious “air time” worrying about senseless things. My perception was transformed: Anything not concerned with enjoying life and giving and receiving love needed to beat a hasty departure.
It helped to move out of Los Angeles and cancel my fashion magazine subscriptions. It also helped to resume my meditation practice, which enables me to act from organic, original thoughts rather than the collective. I realized that maybe skinny jeans are for skinny people and that is okay. When I’m on my deathbed, will I really regret not being a size zero?
What I love about yoga, especially Kripalu Yoga, the yoga of compassion, is that I can just be me. Relaxing into the breath and following that still, small voice, I am led to peace, bliss, release, and an inner acceptance. It might be “perfect” to go to yoga class three or four times a week. But what would be a more reasonable goal? Making it to class once a week and, on another day, asking a friend over to practice and then sharing a healthful meal.
Perfection doesn’t make room for silliness or fun; perfectionism is about separateness, being the “best,” and isolation. In the middle of the road, in the place of “good enough,” there is space for taking myself less seriously, for loud laughing and truly connecting with kindred spirits. As a creative person, I love the asymmetrical, the slightly askew, the artfully tousled. I cherish the quirks, eccentricities, and “flaws” in those I love, so why not in me?
It’s a much more colorful, expansive, and fun way to live. I’ve been flying middle-of-the-road for a few years now, and my new favorite experiment is slackerdom. The word has negative connotations—slacker can mean someone unwilling to work or contribute, who shirks responsibilities. My slackerdom is living without the perfectionistic, workaholic imperative that our culture seems to reward. I don’t work a 40-hour week—I’ll take less money and more time to smell the daisies and walk the beach. I wear what’s comfortable, with a little flair. I nap frequently. No more rushing around in a frenzy; slow is how I roll.
Ironically, I get a lot done. If I can just be perfectly imperfect me, it frees up so much energy. When superficial worries cease, there’s room for a new dharma to bubble up, and there have been many, from I want a bike to I want to teach dance to I want to try this peanut kale recipe. The unknown, the unusual, the whimsical has space to percolate, unfettered by the rigid demands of my perfectionist agenda.
It is easier to hear my inner wisdom. I write letters, I cook more, I read more, I laugh more. I forgive easily, and I’m offended less often. I enjoy my yoga so much more. I’ll do Legs-up-the-Wall for 10 minutes, even if I can’t practice for 30. I’m flowing down the river of life, and there is no rigidity.
I have let go of so much, gently easing into this new, humane way of life. While my ego sometimes still shudders at the new me, I must confess that I am content. And contentment, I’ve discovered, is a shade of perfect.
Cheryl Kain is a writer, teacher, and musician who has practiced Kripalu Yoga for 20 years. Her story of how yoga changed her health and her life was featured on Good Morning America.