I love and am very proud of who I am. I have worked hard to know and understand myself as thoroughly and honestly as I can and done my best to live a life which is as authentic and loyal to that self as possible. I have been fortunate enough, incredibly so in several cases, to have access to opportunities which have allowed me build and follow path genuinely my own. Sometimes it has clicked together nicely, sometimes it has been hard and painful, sometimes it has brought amazing rewards, and sometimes it has cost a great deal. I love and am very proud of who I am but I am far from perfect.
The “You’re perfect just the way you are” phrase is one we initially offer in an effort to fend off someone’s feelings of self-hatred, whether self-generated or as the result of others’ abusive behavior. Imparting the message that we are all valid and worthy is noble, important, and can have invaluable impact on someone whose sense of self-worth has been damaged. The trouble is by adding the word ‘perfect’, for more powerful emphasis and more poetic prose, other messages and connotations hitch along for the ride opening the door for other problems on different fronts.
Over the past couple of decades the sentiment of the phrase has morphed from being a bolstering message of validation to a somewhat confrontational counter attack. The focus has shifted from empowering the individual to indicting society as a whole. Even the attempt to fend off or thwart the abusive behavior of a specific individual has warped into casting that individual as a representation of a grander societal group, a representative of a larger enemy tribe.
This shift has happened gradually and even somewhat naturally. The people who most often need this kind of reassurance and empowerment are those who are outside common societal norms. As a species we do not have a very good track record for handling difference and there are some differences which have wound up on the receiving end of absolutely abhorrent behavior.
The trauma which leads to the need for supportive validation also leads to understandable and justifiable frustration, resentment, and anger. Being reassured we are valid and worthy can be invaluable but when the abusive treatment of others continues without accountability or consequence accepting and embracing our own worthiness starts to seem less important than defending it.
Thus the sentiment underlying “You’re perfect just the way you are” warps from being a statement of supportive affirmation to one of defensive accusation against those who have the audacity to say otherwise. A sentiment which gets further bolstered by the pervasive culture of excessive ego-protection which made its way into the mainstream Western education in the 1970’s. Being “perfect just the way we are” and the concept of failure being made to seem impossible function as ideal perspective-warping bedfellows.
There are definitely times when aggressive defense is the necessary approach. Sometimes we simply need to make the abusive treatment and messaging stop through countering it or removing it, either by banishing the source or by escaping the situation. Proactive targeted action can be difficult and painful but also incredibly rewarding and healing. Passively stubborn finger pointing, not as much.
When “You’re perfect just the way you are” becomes a condemnation of others for their negative opinions the sentiment is no longer one of fostering self-acceptance but of expected external acceptance, instead of our difference being something to embrace it becomes weaponized. Demanding people treat even those they do not understand with dignity and respect is one thing. Demanding they automatically and unequivocally accept everyone they encounter is another.
It can be all too easy to slide from empowerment into entitlement and shifting the focus from our own sense of self-worth to expecting unconditional approval and acceptance from those around us is one of the primary greases on that slope. When this distortion occurs “You’re perfect just the way you are” becomes seen and treated as a release from accountability, a blank check to behave however we want because now other people are the problem. Any attempt to curtail our ‘perfection’ is now a transgression and any disagreement with our ‘perfection’ is a discriminatory assault.
Undeniably there are all too many instances, both past and ongoing, of derogatory and discriminatory forces within society attacking, shaming, and forcing change on those whose difference has been branded ‘incorrect’. From peer pressures around societal standards of beauty to aggressive conversion therapies, or more accurately ‘brain-washing torture’, we don’t have to look very hard to find far too many examples of enforced conformity powered by external social discrimination.
Thus a defensive anger and reciprocal attitude of attack are both understandable and at times fully warranted. There are most definitely times when resistance is absolutely necessary but ‘perfect’ is not the rallying cry. We can’t counter misunderstanding or ignorance by attempting to simply disqualify it, by dismissing it as lesser or beneath. We can only counter them by meeting them face to face with exposure, experience, and information revealing what knowledge is missing or has been inaccurately interpreted.
We are not going to understand everything we encounter. Even if we managed to we will not agree with everything we encounter and that is not an evil. Difference is not anarchy and disagreeing is not an act of hatred but ‘perfect’ is an arbitrary absolute which does not allow room for either difference or disagreement. Elevating and entitlement are not the same things as empowering and being the aggrieved party does not give us license to behave in any manner we choose.
If we are ‘perfect’ we are a flawless ideal and therefore never ‘different’, we are the standard by which all others are to be measured. If we are ‘perfect’ anyone disagreeing with us is simply and categorically wrong. Defining perfect may be a matter of perspective but it is also an absolute leaving no room for any additional or differing interpretation. It elevates us and emboldens us but it does not empower us because ‘perfect’ is as confining as it is elevating.
If we are ‘perfect’ there is no room for us to grow or change because any movement in any direction alters our ideal state rendering us no longer ‘perfect’. We can’t be “perfect just the way we are” unless we stay exactly as we are. And there is no way for others to truly engage with us, they can only appreciate us as a distanced symbolic entity. Our well intentioned empowerment winds up coming with a permanent set of shackles backhandedly shaming us into tattooing ourselves with our ‘perfection’ in order to access the empowerment, which is the opposite of an empowerment.
Am I making too big a deal of the word ‘perfect’? Perhaps, but it is a potent and dangerous word. Our words matter, especially those we use in relation to our sense of self. The vulnerability and harm which inspires the use of the phrase in question is a prime example of why. We feel moved to bolster someone because we see them internalizing a damaging and derogatory assault on their sense of self-worth.
If we are told we are stupid, ugly, weak, unworthy, deviant, disgusting, broken, useless, unlovable, or any other dismissals of our worth we are pushed to believe it. If our sense of self-worth is strong enough we can potentially withstand the onslaught but if we hear it often enough, if we hear it over and over and over again eventually even the heartiest foundation can start to erode whether we are hearing it from the voices of others or if we are saying it to ourselves on their behalf.
Words are powerful, words matter. If the phrase were “You’re healthy just the way you are” or “You’re beautiful just the way you are” or “You’re worthy just the way you are” then the sentiment remains one of empowerment through a personal and shareable perspective. It would speak of being deserving of love and consideration rather than attempting to elevate above the reach of them.
‘Perfect’ is dangerous because it is an absolute as well as a lie. No person is perfect. We can’t be nor should we. We are constantly growing and changing with each passing moment and we need the space and freedom to do so otherwise we are simply locking ourselves into a stagnant still image repeating the same day over and over again our entire lives. We can strive to be the best possible version of ourselves but in truth the only thing we can actually achieve is ‘better’. We can’t ascertain ‘best’ until our lives have ended as each day offers us a chance for a new and different outcome.
It is important to note we are not isolated entities floating in a vacuum. Our circumstances and environment have enormous impact on our opportunities and choices. There are always going to be times in our lives when the choices we have available to us are not the ones we want, and sadly there are those whose choices are not even remotely on par with those around them because of societal inequalities and discrimination.
We can only play with the cards we have. We can do our best to make the most of them and thus improve the next set we have to work with. For some, that slope can be exhaustingly steep and profoundly unfair but it is always there. Being “perfect just the way we are” might seem like a way of shortcutting around that slope but in truth it simply removes us from the journey by locking us into a frozen ideal and a belligerently expectant stance.
None of us are ‘perfect’. There will always be criteria in life we are unable to measure up to and thus rewards we will be unable to achieve. The “perfect just the way we are” concept not only sets us up with a false expectation that we are owed the things we want, due to our ‘perfection’, but it also risks invalidating our experiences of our own struggles and our ability to embrace our own short comings.
If we are ‘perfect’ any suffering we have felt has been misguided and illegitimate because the problem is with other people not us. And we can’t be honest with ourselves about our weaknesses and shortcomings because we’re ‘perfect’ and the think or feel otherwise is letting those other villains taint our thinking. Exaggerating or fixating on our shortcomings can be toxic to our mental and emotional health but tinting our own lenses to the point of denying we could ever have any can be just as toxic both internally and to our relationships with others.
We are starting to see a growing emergence of resistance to static and absolute labels. Non-binary identities and pansexuality are by their very nature attempts at definitions without boundaries. More and more people are reticent to adopt any one particular identity label because they want to retain the freedom to be something else as well or instead as their lives and interests grow and change.
That is not to say all minds and attitudes are headed in this direction. The approaching spread of boundary and barrier free ideologies is rather unsettling or even terrifying to those who are too deeply rooted in definitive categorization. Which is why we are also seeing such frothingly zealous attempts to cram the world back down into as strict and simplistic ‘A or B’ systems of categorizing as possible.
Will we ever get there, will we reach a point true freedom where ‘you do you’ supplants the destructive ‘us versus them’ mentalities we are trapped in at the moment? I would certainly like to think so. We are definitely seeing encouraging signs, even amidst all the current chaos. We just have a few archaic and restrictive ideologies to shake free of first. Even seemingly well intentioned ones like “You’re perfect just the way you are”.
None of us are perfect and that is perfectly okay. What we are is human and the most empowering thing we can do is embrace that in ourselves and then in one another.