Sure, we have high aspirations for our spiritual growth – but when expectations are unrealistic, we might develop the “saint syndrome”. Here’s what to do about it.
One of the attractive qualities of the spiritual path is the idea of becoming perfect. Sure, most everyone has some ideal they seek after, even if they aren’t spiritual, like the pinnacle of their career, winning a marathon, or writing that best-selling book.
But spiritual seekers take that to the nth degree. This is what I call the Saint Syndrome. We have these spiritual teachers or gurus we look up to that seem to have it all together. They’re completely at ease all the time, sit in meditation for hours, seem content to do selfless service continually, appear to have all the flawless answers to every deep question. Their love and devotion to the Divine is impeccable, as is their behavior.
We look at the masters, like Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna, or modern-day saints like Mother Teresa or Gandhi, and believe that we’re expected to become like that. We try to mold ourselves into their perceived serene and elevated state. Those saints certainly don’t have anxiety, do they? There’s an expectation to become like a saint, and we think that’s the intended end-result of our practice.
Do you have Saint Syndrome? Well, let me reassure you that you aren’t expected to become one. In fact, it would be completely inauthentic to force yourself into being some external idea of what perfection is. Forcing yourself to be anything, even if you think it is your Divine nature, is simply doing violence to yourself.
We develop this Saint Syndrome by comparing ourselves to others and having expectations of how we, and the spiritual path, should be. Whenever expectations and comparison rear their head, you can bet that anxiety and stress are coming in short order.
When I was 19, I took my first personal growth workshop, at the encouragement of my father who was very much into the self-improvement movement (by the way: the whole idea of self-improvement implies that we aren’t already good enough – see any problem in that?). In that first course, I learned something that stuck with me the rest of my life: expectations lead to disappointment.
When we’re expecting something to happen in a certain way—attachment to outcome—we’re setting ourselves up for feeling let down. This is not the same as having a goal or an intent. We can have a clear idea of what we want to achieve or how we want to feel, like more relaxed and at ease. But if we’re expecting it all the time, or expecting that at some point, we won’t have to deal with fear or worry anymore and then they show up, we can fall into the downward spiral of self-recrimination, shame, despair, and doubt.
We do our spiritual work (or play!) in order to increase our capacity for love, peace, trust, clarity, resilience, or many other qualities, and to improve the state of our lives. But if we have expectations about how that unfolds or what that looks like, and it doesn’t turn out perfectly that way (hint: probably won’t), we’re setting ourselves up for more anxiety.
Perfection is a Human Invention
The bottom line is that there’s really no such thing as perfection. Perfection is a human invention. It’s an idea conceived of and defined by human beings, with limited human minds.
We have this idea that perfection means that everything is completely right and unmarred. Someone who is perfect has no flaws. We believe that it’s possible to be that perfect person. And we project this idea on our concept of the Divine, too—that It is perfect… according to our ideas of what perfect means.
But my understanding of Spirit is that it is Infinite, Unlimited, everywhere Present, and All That Is. How can anything that has no limits or bounds be limited by our idea of a word called perfection? And if that is true—that perfection doesn’t exist, in the way we conceive of it, in the realm of the Infinite—then why are we, as spiritual seekers, holding on to the idea, believing that we need to become perfect “saints”? An idea that causes us anxiety from continual self-comparison and, naturally, falling short.
The Pathway Out of the Saint Syndrome
Furthermore, if perfection doesn’t really exist except as a ridiculous idea in our minds, then neither does imperfection. This is the key to letting go of the saint syndrome.
Step out of the duality of perfect/imperfect and simply allow yourself to be, right here as you are. Release your tendency to compare. Let go of expectations, and instead trust the process, knowing that Spirit will guide you in your path of awakening. Take a deep breath of appreciation for simply being. You might find that your body and mind relax a bit. That’s a step forward on your journey to more ease, inner peace, and resilience.
Want to learn more about finding the calm, peaceful place within – without having to be perfect? Pick up a copy of Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life!
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