Living with, and Loving, Your Imperfect Life

Mice in your kitchen, ants at the picnic, screaming children, losing your temper, grouchy boss—life is full of imperfections. And yet it’s uncanny how hard we try to keep everything tidy and together. In fact, when we start to loosen up our habits of perfectionism we discover strength and resilience within.

Illustration by Mindful with source files from Sydney Smith and Dollar Photo Club/Jamesbin

It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning and you wake from your slumber to hear the kids stirring in their bedrooms down the hall.

“Your turn to get up,” you say, nudging your partner. So he does, drowsily leaving the room only to return a few minutes later—followed, not surprisingly, by your two kids.

As they happily bounce on the bed, you grumpily try to convince them to go play on their own. It’s no use. While your partner snuggles back under the covers, you drag yourself out of bed.

Later that morning you find a moment to talk with your partner. “What happened? I thought it was your turn to get up with the kids today.”

He shrugs. “They really should be able to entertain themselves at their age, shouldn’t they?”

You feel yourself bristle. “Maybe they should, but they never have. Why did you expect anything different today?”

The concept of mindfulness often brings up images of relaxation, stillness, or acting in some beatific, staid manner. Indeed, there’s a widely held assumption that being mindful means you’re always calm and in control. And because of this perception, mindfulness itself is sometimes miscast as a set-up for personal failure. “Life’s hard enough without aiming for being mindful all the time.”

Yet the notion that mindfulness imparts some unrealistic state of human perfection misses the point. Not only does it not equal perfection, it encourages quite the opposite view of our lives. For as much as you’d like to think you could be cheerful and understanding about—maybe even grateful for—your children’s abundant early morning energy and generous about your partner’s need to catch up on sleep, too, you’re tired, and yes, annoyed. The reality is that living peacefully with our families, friends, and colleagues requires patience with an awful lot of things.

Being mindful starts in part with accepting the fact that we cannot ever be fully mindful in the first place. Our brains just aren’t wired that way.

Most anywhere in life, being mindful starts in part with accepting the fact that we cannot ever be fully mindful in the first place. Our brains just aren’t wired that way. And life itself is unendingly unpredictable; imperfection is the norm. It’s how we live with these facts that influences our moment-to-moment well-being.

So, sure, one aspect of mindfulness is aiming to be more focused. That’s because otherwise most of us spend much of our time doing one thing while paying attention to something else. We’re not aware in any useful way about what we’re doing, saying, or thinking. Not only do we miss out on many meaningful moments when we do this, we also fail to notice the assumptions and choices we’re making throughout the day.

Yet even when we actively practice mindfulness, we can’t sustain focused attention for long. Over and over again we get distracted by our own minds. Sure, when we notice ourselves lost in thought, we bring ourselves back to present awareness—until the next time our minds wander.

Why Practice Mindfulness if Our Minds Are Built to Wander?

Mindfulness practice has distinct benefits— otherwise it would be pretty silly to bother—but there’s no particular end point where anything becomes “perfect.”

Rather than getting caught up in being solemn and serious about that paradox, it’s useful to bring along a sense of humor: Consider how earnestly we aim our attention, only to have a chorus of concerns, pain, or excitement take over. We aim to be less reactive and driven by habit but become derailed by both again and again.

Clearly, when it comes to mindfulness, we spend an awful lot of effort striving for something not ever fully attainable. The mind often does what it wants without our knowing consent and not always to its own benefit—a somewhat twisted and at times outright silly state in which we live. We rely on the mind to figure things out, but it doesn’t even know what’s good for it!

Mindfulness, however, also does not mean I’m perfect just the way I am. It’s not that life’s “All good,” as the common maxim indicates. Those kinds of clichés don’t mean much—we all could use some improvement, and sometimes life isn’t particularly good. Instead, when we recognize that we’re lost once again in feeling we “should” be perfect at being mindful, we practice letting that thought go, and get back to doing our best without the extra layers of exhausting self-judgment.

And that’s where mindfulness becomes useful. Surfing the never-ending waves of change and challenge that comprise real life, we aim to improve while not judging ourselves for feeling the need to improve. We can readjust and try again both in mindfulness practice and in the rest of life. After all, what can any of us do except pay attention to making skillful choices, work diligently at what it seems we can influence, and try to be at ease with all the rest?

Mindfulness does not impart a magical state of perfection. Life is unendingly unpredictable, and imperfection is the norm. How we live with these facts determines our moment-to-moment well-being.

Being Mindful is The Opposite of Being Perfect

There’s no question that mindfulness can be a muddled concept. For one thing, the word itself doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s meant to capture a way of living. One aspect of the practice sounds something like this: When aware of what we’re doing instead of skating through life on autopilot, we have a whole lot easier time managing. Without effort and attention, our lives may otherwise follow the same old mental ruts, for better or worse, day after day.

When we pay more attention, one of the first things often noticed is that the mind has a “mind” of its own. It creates ideas constantly—some useful, some random, and many on closer inspection simply habitual. When we’re functioning from autopilot, we keep living the same way, whether or not it’s to our benefit. We accept our assumptions, ways of doing things, and other thoughts as fixed and factual. But, as the saying goes, we shouldn’t believe everything we think.

The Inner Critic is a particularly draining mental pattern. Like a playground tyrant, it’s an unrelenting heckler. It insults and judges mostly without reason—You’re not good enough. You should have done X or Y but definitely not Z again. Why do you bother? You’ll never get it right.

That voice is not about improvement, making amends, or fixing what needs fixing—ideas we want to build upon. The Inner Critic embodies mindless self-judgment that undermines our confidence, and, ultimately, our well-being, and affects all of our interactions with the world.

When we take that critical voice at face value, it fuels perfectionism—I blew it, I should be better at this thing; I shouldn’t be so (fill in your own habitual blank). Even if there were some credence to the thought—maybe we would benefit if we were a little less reactive or hit the gym more often—the incessant negativity isn’t helpful. Change and effort do not require constantly deriding ourselves along the way. In fact, they’re often upended by it.

Most of us spend a fair amount of energy trying to convince ourselves that this judgmental voice is wrong, but it’s not a logical thought to start with. We posit and plea and debate with it, but it’s not even-handedly grading our performance. We can’t with logic alone solve why we’re down on ourselves or why we’re better than the Inner Critic would have us believe. The truth is, over-analyzing our own worth, skills, or prospects can’t really influence an inherently irrational voice.

When we recognize the Inner Critic as nothing more than an entrenched mental habit, we shift our relationship with it. Instead of trying to pacify this voice, we label it and create some distance. Thanks anyway. That’s judgment, and I’m not wrestling with you today. Instead of believing its nagging opinions, we pause, nod at our personal heckler with a smile, and come back to our senses once again.

Instead of constantly trying to pacify our Inner Critic, it can help to just label it for what it is—an entrenched mental habit of judging ourselves harshly and mostly without reason—and create some distance from it.

Here’s What Self-Critical Thinking Looks Like:

I should be better spoken, less irritable, and more reflective.

I should be a better meditator.

I should be taller and have more hair.

I should…

There are things we absolutely should take care of in a concrete sense: I should put solid effort into my activities and work. I should walk the dog. I should give money to charity. Indeed, we should do what we can to improve our lives and the lives of others. Yet much of the time “should” instead represents a red flag. It’s a warning signal that something does not match an uncompromising, not always realistic, mental mirage we’ve created for ourselves.

Here’s an example from my medical practice: Whatever you may know or believe about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, when accurately diagnosed it represents a medical disorder in which self-management skills lag behind peers. For example, a child may be 10 years old but have the abilities of someone far younger when it comes to focus, organization, and planning. This fact is frustrating, demanding, and sometimes overwhelming for both parents and children—but until we catch up their abilities, that child’s specific skills will remain exactly what they are.

There is a common perception that someone with ADHD should do a better job. “If only they tried harder or cared more, they’d stop forgetting their homework!” But a student with ADHD can’t manage schoolwork until taught ways to handle his or her condition, and that takes longer-term planning and diligence. Stress understandably continues until the issue resolves, but the added “should” further burdens parents and children.

As with any challenge in life, overcoming ADHD requires seeing it as it is. When a child with ADHD believes she should be able to succeed through effort alone, it undermines motivation and makes success less likely. When adults feel the same, it just increases their anger and frustration. In fact, when a parent initially recognizes that a child doesn’t want to be forgetful (it’s a common aspect of ADHD) they generally describe a relationship shift with both that child and ADHD itself—even before finding a solution to the forgetfulness.

This doesn’t mean acting falsely upbeat. In fact, sometimes a new understanding of ADHD leads parents to believe they “should” be more patient and able to handle it. But ADHD can be frustrating, managing