When everything has to be better, faster and more beautiful, our life in its current state will actually never seem good enough. So how can we be kinder to ourselves and how can things be less perfect?
These days, it seems increasingly difficult to be kind to yourself, to not desire too much and to dare to be less perfect. How did that happen? Belgian doctor and mindfulness trainer David Dewulf has been studying this question for years. “Our entire society is driven by wanting more. Everything always has to be bigger and better,” he says. “We are aiming for perfection and it is never enough. This pushes us to ask even more of ourselves, and that makes it hard to be loving and friendly.”
According to Dewulf, we are living the American Dream. “We want to buy a better house, drive the right car and earn more money,” he says. “We want to be happy, but we can always do better. It makes us very critical of ourselves and then we try even harder to do our best. I know several very rich people who are deeply unhappy. People who are constantly chasing riches are unhappy by definition, because they are focusing on what they don’t have yet. The fast pace of our society is also a problem. How friendly can we be to our children — and to ourselves — if we are always in a hurry? And how often does doing things in a hurry actually make that much of a difference? Almost never, but still we keep rushing and pushing ourselves to do more and more.” So, how do we make it easier for ourselves and each other?
It starts with self-compassion
To explain what self-compassion entails exactly, Dewulf compares it with the concept of ‘self-esteem’. “Self-esteem means: I am good if I am first or the most beautiful or the smartest or best in class. This might work for a while, but sooner or later someone else is going to catch up, and your self-esteem will collapse. It’s only ever possible for one person to be number one, so you end up being each other’s rivals.”
And then there’s self-compassion. While self-esteem says, ‘I’m okay when I’m okay’, self-compassion says, ‘I’m okay even when I’m not okay’. “That’s the point,” says Dewulf. “Will I allow myself to make mistakes, to be vulnerable? Will I allow myself to have needs, to admit that I need recognition? Can I be okay just as I am, without always having to do something?”
So, what can self-compassion do for you? “Self-compassion can break the pattern of continual striving and of constantly being hard on ourselves,” explains Dewulf. “When we have a loving outlook, we stop squeezing that last bit of life out of ourselves to reach that little bit higher, and we stop judging ourselves when we don’t succeed.”
According to Dewulf, self-compassion means that you can choose to love yourself and to love life. It also means that you are there for your whole self, including your pain, imperfections and troubles. “The basic idea is: Nothing can improve the current moment, because it is perfect and has everything in it that we need to be happy. We have nowhere else we need to be.”
Being kinder to your body
Nowadays we work so much with our minds, that sometimes it’s as if the body is just an added extra. The fact that, in these times, we have become somewhat alienated from our own body is something Australian philosopher Damon Young recognizes. “Today’s society makes great demands on the mind. In their work, most people spend a great deal of their day talking, reading and typing: there isn’t a lot of physical activity going on. Our movement occurs in between, as we scroll on screens, press buttons and make phone calls. We obviously have a body, but its contribution to our lives is limited. As a result, we’re becoming more and more ‘head’, and less and less ‘body’.”
What’s more, we can also be rather critical of our own bodies. According to psychologist Jessica Alleva of the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, this is partly because we see our body as an object. We look at it with the eyes of an outsider. “This third-person perspective is fed by images in society of what an ideal body should look like.” But, according to Alleva, this ideal picture is far from realistic. “Scientists believe that the ideal image is now more unrealistic than ever before. Women must be slim, fit and muscular — but not too much. They must have large breasts and a narrow waist. And always look fresh and youthful.”
It is an almost unfeasible ideal that we face every day. Instagram and Facebook are filled with perfect pictures and perfect bodies — be they implicit or explicit — promoting the message that a beautiful body is important for success and happiness in love and at work. “It is difficult not to be influenced by this,” says Alleva. “Even if you know that the images are unrealistic, you internalize these ideals. You unconsciously compare your own body with the manipulated ideal image.”
So, how can you learn to love your body more? According to Alleva, it helps to think carefully about what your body is capable of. For her doctoral research she gave women with a negative body image the task of spending 15 minutes writing down what their body can do, and why they are so grateful for it. And she asked them to do this three times.
“Women find it difficult to look at their bodies in such a way,” says Alleva. “They are not used to it. But our body is capable of so much beauty. Every writing assignment in the research had a different focus. On one occasion, the women wrote about their health: the body can digest food, absorb vitamins and heal wounds. Another time, about creative things: you can dance, paint and write with your body. And they also wrote about senses, physical performance and what the body can mean in relation to others: you can use it to cuddle, make love and make eye contact. After three times of writing, the women had a more positive body image and felt better about their appearance. An effect that was still there a month later.”
You can practice being less perfect
So how exactly can you be ‘less perfect’? According to Dewulf you can practice self-compassion. “We try to use self-compassion training to pierce through the illusion of thinking in terms of if/then: If I achieve this, then I will be happy. During the training, we often do an exercise in which you have to list ten things you feel grateful for. Participants usually find this very difficult; ten seems like a lot to them. But once they get into it, they realize it’s actually not that much. Because we have an infinite number of things to be grateful for.”
Sometimes Dewulf asks who is grateful for hot running water from a tap in their home today. “No one is, because you don’t feel grateful for that until you’ve gone without it for three days. The problem starts with the mentality that it’s normal for everything to be here. But it isn’t normal. We can list so many things: I’m grateful that this cup of tea is here, I’m grateful that my car is starting or I’m grateful to be alive. It’s about learning to see everything that is already there.”
Wanting to be less perfect also starts with embracing your mistakes. Because, according to trainer Arjan van Dam, it is very normal to do something wrong, and we could actually do it more. “Try to take smaller risks more often in your life, such as clearly giving your opinion in a group,” he says. “And then when people react in a disapproving way, you’ll notice it hasn’t killed you. Embrace your ‘mistakes’ and make a mantra like: ‘No pain, no gain’. If you never have setbacks, you will not grow.” Letting your self-confidence grow can also help you to be kinder to yourself and ultimately reduce your pursuit of perfection.
Text/sources Sjoukje van de Kolk, Otje van der Lelij Photography Toa Heftiba/Unsplash.com