This theme of ideals and shoulds has been coming up a lot lately for me. I have been watching myself and I have noticed some things I didn’t know were there. Like immaturity, expectations of perfection from both myself and others and a desire to control reality.
You see, when things go well, it is easier not to entertain aspects of your lower self. Anybody can be generous when they live in abundance. But when you fail or fall or mess up, that is when the aspects of your lower self start to reveal themselves. That is when your fears start running amok. That is when you start noticing that your strength, happiness and sense of security stemmed not from within, but from external validations. You also notice that your value derived from the way you were perceived by others, from your high-paying job or from the image you had built. It takes failure to reveal those as illusions, which can be a blessing in disguise.
I’m not saying that everybody who lives in abundance has these things lurking underneath, they may very well have transcended these internal attitudes and have no attachment to their wealth or status. I’m saying that losing these things gives us the opportunity to learn where we place our sense of power outside of ourselves, where we unconsciously believe that our worth is dictated by our external circumstances. And it allows us to understand our erroneous assumptions about ourselves and the world.
I started writing this article because of a post I saw earlier on a Philosophy group on Facebook which reminded me of ideals and shoulds. It was a topic of discussion that was proposed by someone:
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Discuss.
I replied the following:
I think this is along the lines of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. It ties into being so blinded by what should be that we don’t see what is. Like forcing things to fit into our narrow definitions of perfection.
This is something I have been contemplating a lot lately. Ideals, shoulds, personal responsibility, stubbornness and immaturity. There is a link between them. Let me see if I can figure it out…
We hold ideals in our minds, abstractions like love and truth and equality and fairness and acceptance. We aspire towards them, we want both to receive them and to give them. But as long as we don’t link them with our personal experiences and see how they apply to ourselves, they become shoulds, images that make us guilty for not being there yet or rules to follow according to our interpretations of what those ideals are. And there is a big difference between love, for instance, and the way love can look like. Love can look like duty, self-sacrifice, accepting bad behavior or submitting to someone’s will. But it is not those things. Those things are erroneous interpretations we give to love.
An example that comes to mind to exemplify this is that when we think of inner peace, we may imagine a Buddhist monk, unshakable and unflinching in the face of the ups and downs of life. Being used to judge solely by results, we do not pause to wonder what sort of life experiences bring forth the lessons necessary to cause such a shift in perspective so that no matter what comes your way you can maintain your peace. Instead, we observe the attitude, the posture, the philosophy, the words , the mannerisms and we try to adopt them ourselves.
We may even understand it at an intellectual level, but what is not immediately apparent are the roots these ideas have grown in the minds of those who experienced what those ideals were or were not, the associations with painful and memorable moments, the trials and errors and the deep understanding they provide. We only see the surface and often it is the surface we try to imitate.
So what is the problem with this approach? Well, there is nothing wrong with it, it’s just that it does not deliver what we want. The fact is that we build mental images of how peace is supposed to look like and instead of honoring our own experiences by accepting them as messengers of who we are or “where” we are with our progress or what we want and need, we resist our experiences in order to make them fit the mental projections of who we think we should be. We say NO to our own selves and that reflects into us saying NO to the world. We deny reality because it doesn’t match our high expectations for who we’re supposed to be. And we miss important revelations that would otherwise come to us if we accepted what is and if we observed it impartially, like a scientist curious about the result of his latest experiment.
The stubbornness comes in because we tend to cling on to our shoulds and enforce them, which is a sign of immaturity. We want to be loved a certain way, we want to be taken care of a certain way and we want people to accept us unconditionally. We demand a kind of perfection that even we are not capable of offering. And we punish people for not being able to provide us with what we think we need, sometimes even through hurting ourselves. A lot of this happens unconsciously, because we have distorted notions of what love is or what acceptance is. Whereas, if we were honest with ourselves and didn’t try to force reality to bend to our will, we could make decisions that empowered us, decisions that acknowledged the truth of the situation we found ourselves in.
And that is where self-responsibility can help us. Self-responsibility is the affirmation that whatever we experience is our responsibility. Self-responsibility does not let us point fingers and instead places the focus back on us. It asks the question “given this experience, what can YOU do about it if you had to accept that you cannot change it?” It’s like taking all the build up of tension and directing it on a positive channel, one that reminds you of your power.
You see, when you go through difficult situations the child within comes to the surface, seeking to be taken care of. If she does not get what she wants when she asks for it, there are other ways to go about it. Temper tantrums, manipulation, punishment, helplessness, all sort of attitudes and behaviors that she thinks will work. All to get the love that she thinks she needs, or rather her interpretation of what that love is. These attitudes are most often subtle and unconscious and they can be destructive if not made conscious.
“Self‑will is too bent upon its own insistence that it is unwilling to accept present reality. It wishes to be already in a different state of consciousness; it wants to be better than it is now. But it fails to accomplish this goal because it is impossible to grow out of something one is too self‑willed to admit. Self‑will makes one rigid, and rigidity is contrary to the flow of life movement. Self‑will says, “I do not accept the reality as it is now, it must be now as I insist it is.” This makes truthful admission impossible.”
– Eva Pierrakos, The Pathwork Lectures
I know this from my own experiences. I unconsciously hurt myself to make the people around me feel guilty about not loving me the way I stubbornly demanded. I refused to take responsibility and I blamed others for what I was going through. The thought process went like ‘If only they accepted all of my demands, then that would mean they loved me and I could succeed in my endeavors because they accepted me the way I was.’
I linked love with people bending to my will. And I learned that I had a lot of distorted notions of what love meant. I didn’t know I had this within me. I think that ideals are important, they are the expression of the highest values there are. They are aspects of divinity. But our understanding of them is limited and that is why we must hold them loosely in our minds, open to learn what they really are.
I can understand now why Jordan Peterson insists so much on the idea of self-responsibility. Life will likely knock you down at some point and when it does, all these things that you didn’t know you had in you will come to the surface. If you go into it with a mindset that the world is responsible for your problems, you will not know that you have the power to get yourself out of that situation and you might instead fight the situation you are in.
There is a quote that says “with great power comes great responsibility”. I find that the reverse is true as well: “with great responsibility comes great power.” The moment we take responsibility for everything we experience is the moment we take our power back from wherever we have scattered it. And then we can really change.