Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.
By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver
Our culture places so much value on the new, the shiny, the perfect, the best. We tend to overvalue perfection and under value the messiness of being human. For those struggling with an eating disorder, black and white thinking rules. It has to be all or nothing. Foods get categorized into “good” and “bad”. Exercise becomes extreme. The thought runs through your head that if you can’t do something perfectly, you won’t do it at all and you may start to opt out of authentic engagement in the ups and downs of life.
Marion Woodman, the late Jungian analyst, wrote a book called “Addiction to Perfection” where she discusses the ways in which we manage our lives and our bodies, trying to make ourselves into a work of art and forgetting that we are all imperfect and flawed humans. Marion talks about perfection as static and more closely connected to death than to life. Life is fluid, dynamic, changing, and far from perfect. And this is what makes it such a challenging, yet amazing experience.
Japanese aesthetic has a way to describe this value on the imperfect called Wabi-Sabi. We have no direct translation of these words into the English language; however, what it means is to discover beauty in imperfections and incompleteness. It is a way of seeing and understanding the world that appreciates asymmetry and impermanence. This is intimately connected to Zen Buddhism and can be seen in art, nature, or one’s home. It values the imperfect, the weathered, and the organic or natural. This is exemplified in the Japanese tea ceremony as each element is an impermanent moment of beauty such as heating the water whisking the tea, drinking the tea. The tea cups themselves are works of imperfect art, and the participants are deeply engaged in a ritual and discovery of the present moment with all its imperfections and aliveness.
What if we applied this to ourselves? What if we started living the principles of Wabi-Sabi where we slowed down and took time to discover and accept the imperfections inherent in being human? What is we embraced this idea that change is all around us and nothing is permanent- and that is hard, but ok?
This is a necessary part of the recovery work. It is common to feel the pull toward perfectionism with doing recovery in just the right way. It is common to feel fear of change. You might feel that if you are not “succeeding 100%” at recovery then it isn’t worth continuing. The truth about recovery is that it is an up and down, winding process, full of imperfections and asymmetry. Recovery is about learning to live in the gray and also about learning to live with colors. Recovery is about learning to live with sadness and happiness and also all the various range of emotions we have as humans such as grief, loss, joy, excitement, loneliness, fear, anger, and surprise. Recovery is about learning to live with and embrace change and being open to doing things differently than we have always done them.
Try putting this into practice today. Here are a few ideas:
- Start with your breath: Take a moment to slow down and take notice of your breath. Without trying to change it, notice if it is fluid or choppy or whatever quality it has. Then engage in a simple breathing exercise. Breathe in for 4 and out for 4. Repeat this pattern 3 times. Notice what changes. Notice the impermanent nature of breathing. It can change in a moment, gifting us with infinite lessons about the dynamic ever-changing quality of life.
- Practice Contentment: Perfection would have us striving for something better all the time. We spend money, time, and effort pursuing what we don’t have. Instead of constantly searching for the next best thing, try to name one thing that is good about what you have now in your life.
- Cultivate Authenticity: This is about letting your true self come through, with all of your cracks and imperfections. Some days we feel great. Other days we simply don’t and could use some extra support. Try on vulnerability and some self-compassion for wherever you are today.
This approach of appreciating imperfections places value on authenticity and vulnerability. The cracks and chips, in a tea cup for example, are seen as assets instead of faults. I wish for you to also begin to look at your own cracks and chips through that lens. A lens of forgiveness, compassion, and contentment.