Excerpted from the chapter “Perfectionism” in Rev. Connie’s Book, Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life
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 Ghandhi, and think that we’re expected to become like that. We try to mold ourselves into that 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. 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.
Case Study: “Why Did I Lose My Calm?”
Marilee came to see me for difficulties with anxiety and depression. She struggled with being able to keep it all together: Mom of three kids, devoted wife, and a rewarding position as a social worker for a county clinic that served at-risk adolescents. She felt good about making a difference for these teens and loved her family, but often felt it was more than she could handle. She believed she was falling short of what she thought a mother, wife, and social worker should be.
I helped her return to her spiritual practices of meditation, self-compassion, and mindfulness and as we worked together for some time, she developed more ease and calm in dealing with her daily life. Her consistent practice was paying off.
Marilee planned to attend a spiritual center with a meditation teacher she admired in Europe, and that involved travel and flying. Fear of flying had been one of the issues she needed help with. She prepared, and felt she was ready to travel, armed with the serene state she was developing.
But a wrench was thrown into the plan. She had to take a couple flights to get to her destination in France. The first one was the most turbulent flight she had ever been on. She white knuckled it with sheer terror. Then, on her connecting flight, she encountered a long delay, sitting inside the airplane on the tarmack for hours—on a blazing hot day. She felt claustrophobic and panicky. This was not turning out how she had planned! And try as she might, she just couldn’t implement her mindfulness practice—it was just too scary. When she finally arrived at the retreat center, she felt traumatized. Although she enjoyed being there, it didn’t pan out to be the experience she hoped for.
Coming home still shook up from her ordeal, she despaired—why did I lose my calm state I had worked so hard to create? She felt dejected and resistant to meditate again—why bother? What did I do wrong?
What I helped Marilee see is that no matter how much we prepare, sometimes life happens. Our spiritual path isn’t about meditating for a while, becoming perfectly serene and then everything else is cake. The practice is to let go of our expectations and perfectionism and to know we have the resilience and skills to endure the challenges and return to our center again. She didn’t do anything wrong, other than the mistake of believing she wouldn’t have to feel fear again. After some work with self-compassion, feeling and listening to her anxiety, and embracing the now by letting go of how it was before , the tension and despair released. She returned not only to feeling ease within, but also to her meditation practice – with non-attachment to outcome!
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