“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
As long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with self improvement.
I’ve tried many things over the years to do better, be better, or feel better. When I was 8, I made a minute-by-minute after-school schedule for myself so I didn’t skimp on homework, exercise, or healthy snacks. For years I’ve read just about any article on health, wellness, or personal effectiveness that I could get my hands on. And I’ve spent god-knows-how-many hours of my time in therapy, coaching, trainings, or workshops.
I’ve learned and grown a lot over the years, overcoming depression, anxiety, and insomnia in the process. But I’ve also hit a lot of walls, partly because that’s the nature of how we learn and grow, and partly because I didn’t yet understand the Change Paradox.
The Change Paradox states that we’re far more likely to change if we accept ourselves exactly as we already are.
For example, one morning last week I woke up in a really bad mood. I was grumpy and impatient and frustrated with myself for being so irritated when I had nothing real to complain about.
The more I tried to lighten up and relax, the crankier I felt. So I meditated, and after my meditation it came to me that it was actually okay to be grumpy and uptight. Lo and behold, as soon as I gave myself permission to be in a bad mood, it lessened. And soon–miracle of miracles–I was able to interact with other human beings again without wanting to bite off their heads.
The key to change is accepting ourselves exactly as we are. But how do we do that when “exactly as we are” includes an awful lot of very real, very painful shortcomings?
By understanding the true nature of our flaws.
Here’s what I’ve learned about why we can all be glad we have defects and foibles, no matter what they are:
1. Flaws are the flip-side of strengths.
I can’t remember where I first heard this, but I highly doubted it at the time. As a natural worrier, I had a hard time seeing how obsessing over what could go wrong could possibly be a strength. But what I’ve found is that my tendency to worry is directly tied to my ability to plan.
As a friend recently pointed out, I’m great with logistics. I know exactly what is needed to turn an idea into action. I’ve seen it in myself and others over and over: those who worry also tend to be capable of making marvelous plans.
Want another example? I’m a coach now, and a lot of my clients come to me wanting to be more confident. They feel bad that they aren’t more bold, assertive, or self-assured.
These same clients are also natural learners. They instinctively want to acquire knowledge, discover patterns, and find ways to do things better. This helps them not only in jobs but in their personal growth and development as well. They may not be confident, but they are incredible students of life.
“Over-sensitive” people are usually compassionate and empathetic. Those who are impatient tend to be ethical and committed to quality. People who avoid conflict are often amazing at creating harmony and unity within a group.
Get rid of your flaws, and you no longer have your strengths. You can’t have one without the other.
2. Flaws are just skills we don’t yet have.
Our defects are basically a misapplication of a particular strength or strategy that has served us well in the past but is working against us in our current situation.
For example, I’m a high achiever. I’ve always been good at getting things done and doing them to the best of my ability.
This served me in a lot of ways. I learned a lot in school, got into a good college, and managed to land some jobs I liked.
I also struggled with anxiety and depression during high school and subsequent years. When I finally got help, I began to see how I was over-applying what were originally good traits.
I was pushing myself not just hard but too hard; I wanted to do not just a good job, but a perfect one. I wanted perfection; I never let up; I never gave myself a break.
I needed to learn how to relax. Literally.
With a lot of help from others, I learned skills like: How to take breaks. How to work with ease. How to recognize when what I’ve done is enough. How to see what’s good in me. How to tune into my intuition and trust it, even if it’s telling me to chill out.
I can’t tell you how much happier I am now that I can both push hard and relax. Now I can choose the best strategy for whatever situation I’m in.
Our flaws aren’t about being bad, or even being bad at. They just mean we need to add new skills to our repertoire.
Once we do, our limitations no longer limit us.
3. Flaws give us wisdom and guidance.
As I learned more about myself, I began to see my depression and anxiety as important sources of information, kind of a GPS navigation system for finding my way in life.
Anxiety, for example, can be a sign that I’m angry with someone or something and need to speak up or take action. Alternatively, it can also alert me to the fact that I’ve strayed from my true north and done something that didn’t feel right to me.
Depression is often a sign that my perfectionism has reared its ugly head again and I’m in dire need of some self-compassion. It can also let me know that I’ve overrun my energy and need to take some time to rest and recharge.
I used to panic when I felt anxious or depressed: “Oh no! What have I done wrong to feel this way again? How long will it last? Will I ever feel better?”
Now when I feel the edges of depression or anxiety, I get curious about what it has to tell me. And it always tells me something.
Our flaws arise when something needs our attention: a need isn’t getting met, we’re caught up in a limiting belief, or we’re on autopilot and no longer making intentional decisions. They’re like little smoke alarms that go off to alert us to the fact that we need to pay attention and do something differently.
Regretting our flaws is like wishing that smoke alarms didn’t exist. Sure, the beeping is loud and sometimes painful. But just like alarms, flaws can be lifesaving if we listen to what they have to say.
4. Flaws connect us to others and allow for empathy and compassion.
It’s undeniably true that all human beings are flawed. Nobody is perfect.
Every flaw is an opportunity to feel our connection to humanity, something we share with every single other person on the planet.
The next time you’re jealous, you might stop to consider how many other people all over the world are feeling the exact same way right now.
If you’re quick to anger, I guarantee you that thousands of people are losing their temper at the exact same moment.
When you do something selfish (and we all will), you can rest assured that you’re not alone.
Rather than being evidence that we don’t belong, our limitations are actually proof that we really, truly do.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to do things differently, or that we shouldn’t try. What it does mean is that we don’t need to regret our mistakes, failures, and shortcomings. The fact that we have them means we can feel compassion for others who are similar to us, and offer empathy to those who need it.
I can’t begin to tell you how many times someone has helped me feel better simply by sharing that they struggle with the same flaws that I do.
5. Flaws help us grow and change.
I had a client once who came to me with a problem of procrastination.
We investigated precisely what happened when she procrastinated. We found that in many cases, her standards were so high that the task at hand seemed impossible and overwhelming, so she put it off until later.
Working together, we were able to help her adopt more reasonable standards for herself so that she could tidy her room without cleaning it top to bottom or finish a proposal that wasn’t 100% pure genius.
In working on her standards, my client became more aware of her Inner Critic and developed new ways of dealing with it. As a result, she treated herself with much more kindness and compassion, felt more confident, and overall enjoyed herself more.
None of this would have happened if she hadn’t procrastinated.
Flaws tend to create pain in our lives that motivates us to make a change, exactly where we need it. They’re opportunities to really look at what we’re doing, see where it isn’t working for us, and try doing something differently.
None of this means that we should give up on making a change. As Shunryu Suzuki said, it’s a both/and: We’re all perfect, and we could all use a little work.
Rather than blindly engaging in our defects or criticizing ourselves for having them, we can simply observe them without judgment and use them as an opportunity to learn.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether we’re good enough or have too many flaws.
The question is, how do we want to be in the world, and what impact do we want to have?
There’s no such thing as self improvement. Getting rid of your flaws will not make you a more valuable person.
But accepting and listening to them might make you a happier one.
Now over to you: How do your flaws help you? What have you learned from your limitations?
Photo by Chiara Cremaschi