All of have bad coping mechanisms which stem from false beliefs of their utility. Recall the time when you believed your girlfriend was cheating on you, so you decided to confront and hurl accusations at her, forcing her confession; or, when you decided to not write that book until you felt you knew enough to be worthy of an audience, fostering a continuous stream of learning with no specific end in sight. Coping mechanisms are ways for us to manage our less than tolerable emotions; some are learned, and others are assumed a priori. Fundamentally, our brains are wired to adapt to our environments.
As I’m writing this article, my mind keeps telling me that I should just go read instead, convinced that I need to learn more before I’m ready to write; that’s another example of a coping strategy. Since, according to neuroscience, rejection is the brain’s equivalent of physical pain, my brain is telling me to stop writing, and keep reading, in order to shield me from experiencing the criticism of released material. And, because there’s a tension between my desire to write and my urge to avoid, I’m going to go back and worth between writing and checking social media to avoid engaging in the activity that’s prompting my anxiety. Eventually, I’ll finish this article; but, a basic question will remain: Should I choose perfection or authenticity?
Freud noted that a fundamental battle between life and death existed within each of us, two competing urges which periodically reigned supreme. On the one hand, we possessed the desire to live and create; and, on the other, the longing for self-destruction. Since he first articulated his theory, it’s been highly contested and, mostly, expunged in academic circles. However, Freud was right about the role of elementary, existential conflicts in our lives, one of which is the perpetual struggle noted in the question above.
Simone de Beauvoir, the revered existential philosopher, wrote, “In truth, there is no divorce between philosophy and life. Every living step is a philosophical choice.” She was telling her readers that actions stem from choices, and choices are grounded in one’s philosophy, or value-system. So, the questions I ask myself each day are: Is it more important for me to appear perfect or be genuine? And, what are the likely consequences of each choice?
All of us want to be accepted, and our brains are wired to attempt to avoid the anguish of rejection. Thus, somehow, and probably in different ways, we conclude that perfection is the answer. We think, as long I’m perfect, others will gravitate toward me. Perfectionism, in essence, is a rational, but flawed, way of creating a sense of comfort, a fool’s gold that sparkles on the surface only to reveal a hallow core inside.
Being imperfect drives me crazy. I hate finding flaws in my writing, I hate making mental errors on our podcast, and I hate having to deal with the tech/audio issues on it. Placed together, they add up to the sum which symbolizes my insurmountable inadequacy. I can spend hours, and even days, dwelling on the details. What could I have done differently? Would a better decision have led to a better outcome? How much better would it have been? These ruminations swirl in my mind until I’m so exhausted that I can’t continue thinking. Because, in some dark corner of my psyche, I believe that perfection equals love.
And, if left unexamined, my value of perfection, of being or simply appearing to be perfect, will endure as my practical philosophy, automatically dictating my interactions with the world. If I continue to conceal the more shameful parts of myself, my relationship with life will be purely vapid. But, as valuing money isn’t in itself a toxic philosophy (whereas, valuing wealth may be), valuing a sense of competency and admiration isn’t either; happiness (and/or sense of life-satisfaction) is about degree. And, it’s also about clarity.
The other day, I had a conversation with someone whose lectures I deeply love. I asked her how she conceived of her time on stage and what she believed her audience was thinking. She told me that she was concerned about her anxiety manifesting in her speech, worried about its imperfections. While I heard eloquence, she conceived incoherence; and where I felt fire, she sensed fear. But, both of us were right. Her latest talk was a combination of each factor, intertwined to encapsulate the complexity of who she was, the authenticity of her being. In that fleeting moment, her audience was granted an external glimpse into their own internal wholeness. In standing undressed before us, in her passion and her fear, she taught us that it was admissible for us to choose to be ourselves. Through us, she perceived her brighter side; and through her, we took a step closer into the darkness of our shadows. She was our mirror; and, inextricably, we were her own reflection.
In her mind, maybe she believed she needed to be perfect, but what drew us to her talk were all of the qualities that she exhibited, one of which was her anxiety. Emmy van Deurzen, the prominent existential psychologist said, “If we present ourselves as wonderful all the time, nobody will like us or love us, but far worse than that, we stop our capacity for loving other people.” It’s cliche for a reason: if we refuse to accept our own shadows, it’ll be challenging to embrace another’s wholeness. Existential thinking, being genuine, authenticity, isn’t about being the most genuine person you can be, the most you that you can possibly manifest (i.e. perfection); it’s about your willingness to accept that you make mistakes and that sometimes you’ll be brave, and honest, and show your fear; but at other times, you’ll hide it. It’s not so much about being courageous as it is about trying to be courageous, knowing that you won’t always defeat fear, but being proud of yourself each time you try to. Authenticity is less about presenting your authentic self to the world than it is about presenting your wholeness to yourself, which can engender a willingness to exhibit it; and, conversely, the opposite is true. If perfection exists, its peak abides in truth.
In examining whether to appear perfect or be authentic, we ask ourselves: what is love, and how do we create it? In seeing the breadth of myself in another, the competence and fear, the passion and inadequacy, and vice versa, an existential barrier is shattered. In that moment, the fear of dying, the purported clarity of impotence, and the sorrow of existence is washed away by an ocean of connectivity. The ocean isn’t perfect, its depths full of both tragedy and beauty; but it serves a fundamental purpose, providing all of us with the oxygen needed to sustain us.