The Courage to be Imperfect

It’s been a week since I posted. As you know if you’ve been following along, this was not the plan. The plan had been to post every other day. And then I missed one day by accident. And then I was late on another post. And then suddenly, this week, I couldn’t manage to post a single one. Those of you who know me know this is out of character. I make a point of reaching the bars I set and accomplishing my goals. It will come as no surprise to anyone that I have deep perfectionist tendencies. You don’t rack up this many letters after your name without being a bit obsessed with getting things just so.

But as much that tendency has served me well and gotten me through school and life in so many important ways, it has also been deeply detrimental to my overall mental health. More often than not, I push myself hard, too hard. I take on things because I know they are important and because I want to do them, but I tend to overload myself. I’m constantly telling myself I can do more, be more, work harder, fit more things into the day. But to be honest, it’s exhausting. And it takes a toll.

I have what we now call high-functioning depression. I struggle with my mental health and have dealt with suicidal ideation since I was a teenager. But on the outside, I seem fine. Better than fine. I don’t just achieve, I overachieve. I bake and decorate my kids’ birthday cakes from scratch, I teach them French and Arabic, I clean and organise the house to the point where people tell me I should be an interior designer, all while working two jobs and doing community work on top of it. And I know that sounds insane, and it is, but it’s also surprisingly common. So many of my clients and friends are the same way. I’ve found it to be especially common in women of colour. We seem to have become so accustomed to having to work ten times harder to achieve the things we want, that we’ve learned to see it as normal. And because we know any mistake we make can outweigh all our successes, we aim for perfect. There is no room for error. The cost is too high.

This messaging comes to us from all sorts of sources - our parent and our partners, our communities and schools, and the society that we live in as a whole. We are constantly told we have to work harder, be better. We are praised for ignoring our boundaries and taking on more. People ask me all the time how I manage to do to so much. I’ve taken to saying that I just don’t sleep. More often than not, the response I get is “MashAllah! It’s so wonderful you can do it all.” Rarely do people say that if I’m not sleeping, that’s a problem. And frequently, the fact that I’m good at so many things and insist on acing everything I do is used as a way to convince me to do more - “but you’re so good at it,” “but no one else can do it the way you can.” And it’s flattering and lovely and I want to hear those things because the flip side of all of this is that I do so much because I live with a perpetual sense of not being enough, as so many of us do. The fear that it will all fall apart, that I will lose all I have built, that if I say no this time I won’t be asked again, that opportunities for women of colour (or any minority really) are so rare so you have to seize them when they come, no matter the cost - these are all fears that live with me daily. It’s an anxiety that gnaws at me and keeps me up at night. And I know I’m not the only one, because I hear all these things over and over from my clients.

For my clients, I am the one who reminds them it’s ok not to be perfect, that it is important, even essential, to take a break. I remind them of the first lesson in self-care I learned when I chose this profession - even when the plane is going down, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else with theirs. Because if we pass out from lack of oxygen because we were so busy helping others, we are of no use to anyone. And because, at a fundamental level, we deserve to breathe and live as much as the person beside us. It is an essential lesson in life and in living.

But it’s easier said than done. Most of us go into professions because we have a particular weakness. Doctors make the worst patients, and psychotherapist are the same. We are great at helping others but often fail at applying the same skills in our own lives.

Which bring me back to this week and my lack of posting. Normally, I would have pushed myself and made the posts. I would have stayed up too late, worked too hard, and pulled it off somehow. But I’m trying to listen to my own advice and practice what Adler calls the courage to be imperfect. And it does take courage. Admitting that I am not perfect and that I struggle and fail is a hard thing. A thing that often feels impossible. But it is also an essential thing. As Dreikurs puts it:

“If we can't make peace with ourselves as we are, we never will be able to make peace with ourselves. This requires the courage to be imperfect; requires the realisation that ‘I am no angel, that I am no superhuman, that I make mistakes, that I have faults. But I am pretty good because I don't have to be better than the others’ — which is a tremendous relief.”

I’ll be honest, it doesn’t feel like a relief to me just yet. But I know it will. I can imagine a time when I don’t feel like I have to be perfect at everything and seems so liberating. And not posting this week has been one small step in working towards that. It has been a recognition that I needed a break, even just on this one thing, and that was ok. And I fought with myself every day but I knew it was important. So one night, I read a book instead. On another, I took a bath. Last night I watched an Indian movie. And none of these will seem like earth shattering things unless you know how rarely I allow myself to stop and do little things like that.

But this is also a Ramadan reflection and how I am working through this is also tied to my faith. Today’s snowflake is al-Ali, the Most High. In that sense it is a reminder that only Allah is perfect. And no matter how much I work towards perfection, it will always be out of my reach, because I am human and fallible. Allah tells us this over and over throughout the messages He has sent. And that is a blessing, because in it is the relief that Dreikurs talks about - it releases me from the burden of perfection. It reminds me that for Allah, I am enough, as I am. In fact, my imperfection is part of the beauty and diversity of Allah’s creation. Like stained glass, it is our imperfections that allow us to reflect Allah’s light in all its multiplicities and thereby create a more beautiful world. And so long as I am striving, working toward being better, trying to create a more just world, that is enough. Allah doesn’t expect me to be perfect and so neither should I.

Especially in these last few days of Ramadan, when so many of us are pushing ourselves to do more, it’s important to remember that the striving is enough. We do not have to be perfect and we should not try to be. Your best is more than enough, even if your best today is not the same as it was yesterday or the same as it will be tomorrow. You are allowed to be human. In fact, in many ways, Ramadan is a reminder of just how human we are - how we get tired and hungry and frustrated but how we can strive to be good and kind and loving anyway. As Sultan Mohamed Shah, Aga Khan III put it so perfectly, “struggle is the meaning of life.” The struggle to be comfortable with our own imperfection and to live anyway, to work anyway, to love anyway - that’s what real courage is all about.

ps. Please don’t stop coming to me with your issues or giving me work. I love what I do. All of it. Truly. The courage to be imperfect and to set boundaries and to say no has to come from me. And I’m getting better at it everyday.

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