Permission to be human
“I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” ~Augusten Burroughs
This morning I had to write a difficult email to a friend. I confessed that, although I’d promised to do something for them, I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I’d only agreed to do it at the time because I wanted them to like me. They felt disappointed that I’d gone back on my word, and more let down than if I’d said no in the first place.
On occasions like this I can feel, like Burroughs, as if I am made entirely of flaws – and I’m not sure how good my intentions are either. It doesn’t feel very nice. I would much prefer to be perfect!
I don’t think I’m alone in preferring to be perfect. We are surrounded by stories and images in the media about how we ought to be – young, beautiful, successful, popular. We get caught up in roles and identities, and put ourselves under pressure to present ourselves as ‘someone who copes’ or ‘someone who doesn’t get upset’.
There are a few disadvantages to this approach. One is that we are continually setting ourselves up to fail. We set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and then feel disappointed when we can’t live up to them. We start from a position of ‘ought’ (‘I ought to enjoy calling in to see my father-in-law’) rather than reality (‘my father-in-law is a difficult person sometimes and I’m too tired this week to see him without getting grumpy’).
Another is that, by keeping our flaws to ourselves, we can give a false impression to others and so they don’t realise when we might need their help. ‘Not being very good at asking for help’ is one of my flaws, and it means that, not only am I missing out on getting help, but I’m also taking away the opportunity for those around me to offer help. If they have the time and energy, people are often glad to help – I know I am.
Acknowledging and fully admitting to our flaws reminds us of how it is to belong to the human race, which helps us feel more compassionate towards the people we love (and don’t love!). If we struggle so much with our own shortcomings (which don’t even always make logical sense to us) then we can understand how hard it might be for others. They won’t have the same shortcomings as us (they’ll have different compulsive behaviours, different fears) but they will be of the same variety – human.
In my experience, when we are more open about what we’re struggling with, people usually understand and respond with caring. This experience of being accepted ‘just as we are’ can be truly transformative. Paradoxically, the safety and comfort we experience in these moments can allow us to soften our defences, face our fears and become more loving and less flawed.
Of course it isn’t always appropriate to share our flaws with everyone all of the time. If we are looking after someone who’s ill or vulnerable, they might need us to put our needs aside for the time being and be ‘the strong one’. We might also know people who are generally intolerant of other people’s shortcomings (possibly because they also struggle to tolerate their own). These aren’t the best people to start practising being more honest with!
Experiment with being more open this month. Choose one person every week and show them a teensy bit more of your flaws than you would usually. Don’t expect anything in return, and see what happens…
The person I wrote the email to was disappointed, but they also said that they appreciated my honesty and that they could understand my dilemma. It felt like they were saying to me that it was okay to be human. The good news: it’s okay for you to be human too.
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