On the Need to be Perfect and the Tyranny of ‘Shoulds’

the need to be perfect Joanna Kujawa

The weekend has barely ended and my body is rested but my mind is overrun by the need to be perfect and a long list of ‘shoulds’. Where do they come from: the need for perfection and the tyranny of ‘shoulds’?

Julia Cameron in her now legendary book ‘The Artist’s Way’ say that we all have the Ugly Censor within us whose purpose is to berate us on a regular basis, especially when we do something out of the ordinary, new or artistic. The Ugly Censor tells us, ‘How dare you?!’ and ‘Who do you think you are?!’ The Ugly Censor insists that we need to be perfect in every situation to deserve to be alive. My spiritual teacher calls the Ugly Censor’s activity the ‘tearing thoughts’. Thoughts that tear into the fabric of our being. The mean thoughts that we would not attempt to attack anyone else with but so comfortably, if unconsciously, we use to berate ourselves. These are the thoughts that take our joy away, the thoughts that tell us we are worthless.

I do have this Ugly Censor in me and I do have these tearing thoughts in me and they always tell me that whatever I do is not good enough, that I am not accomplished enough, not slim enough, not successful enough. Sometimes I read people’s entries on Facebook and I admire how they celebrate their successes and ‘feel accomplished’. Had I listened to my Ugly Censor I would never have felt accomplished – or even just good about myself.

The Ugly Censor loves ‘shoulds’. If you are a writer you ‘should’ be a famous one – and right away at that. If you are a mother you ‘should’ be the perfect mother (whatever that is). But when we look closer at our need for perfection we can see how this cane deaden us, how something beautiful and unexplored in us is closing off at every thought of behaviour which is the ‘right’ thing to do. I often struggle with this self-imposed obligation or correctness and have to consciously and consistently remind myself to follow what brings me inner joy rather than another set of ‘shoulds’. Small choices such as ‘do the thing you love first before the thing that you “should” do’. It takes lots of self-discipline, believe me. For example, I began waking up at 5:30 am to do my writing. Yes, it is early but if I don’t do it then the business of life takes me away from what is the innermost expression of who I am. So I choose to do the thing I love most first and then I can go to work and take care of my little family guilt-free. I can then actually enjoy these things because I have already rewarded myself in the morning. Sure, it would be nice if I did not have to work, did not have to spend my weekends marking students’ papers, had plenty of time to write. It would be lovely if I could just walk by the sea with my partner and do only things I want to do. But this is not how it is at the moment and I am not going to allow the Ugly Censor to tell me again how a writer is to live.

And the funniest thing about the Ugly Censor is that he/she/it is a liar. If our lives depended on our perfection we would all be dead; the whole world would be dead. Not only would our individual acts of creation not happen but the entire process of creation would not happen. This Universe would never have come to be if perfection was the only measurement. The Ugly Censor tells us to do the impossible, to comply with a level which does not exist – just as perfection in life does not exist.

In this sense, the Ugly Censor wants to pull us away from the spontaneous, messy beauty of our lives toward deadness, non-existence and the fear of being and creating. Because what are life and creation if not acts of supreme courage and beauty?

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