In college, I spent many hours at the library, hunched over piles of 20th century art books.
Out of the numerous works I studied, René Magritte’s painting Key to Dreams (1930) especially piqued my curiosity.
Why did he label a shoe, la lune (moon)?
Even with my beginner’s French at the time, I knew the word for hat was definitely not neige (snow).
And the désert (desert) had nothing to do with a hammer.
I scrutinized the images a little longer, my brows furrowing. Perplexed, I sighed and read the description… the joke was on me!
Magritte simply wanted to show how we attach certain symbols, like letters and sounds, to concepts and objects. Us humans have collectively agreed to associate the combined letters d-o-g with the animal that is a dog.
By labeling objects with unmatched words, Magritte invites us to question our perception of life itself.
As small children, we learned to use symbols to speak, understand and interact with the world around us. Caretakers eventually teach us what’s good/bad, right/wrong and beautiful/ugly.
That’s why Magritte’s frames resemble vocabulary cards or children’s textbooks.
We innocently agreed to what others have taught us to believe. That if we don’t do or be xyz, we’re unworthy, broken or not good enough.
If we were perfect, we would never feel ashamed again… right? But what is perfection anyway?
Believe it or not, you’re chasing a representation of perfection. You’ve accidentally labeled your portrait, moche (ugly).
How to be perfect? You’re already perfect.
Let me explain…
Words limit or empower you
In The Fifth Agreement, authors Don Miguel Ruiz and Don Jose Ruiz share fascinating Toltec wisdom to create joyful lives.
To fully enjoy life, we need to become self-aware, to recognize what is true instead of what we believe to be true.
Words help us understand the world around us—hence, our opinions, rules, stories and philosophies about everything, including ourselves. But we mustn’t confuse these interpretations with life itself.
A couple who are friends of mine love to show me recent flowerings in their backyard arboretum each time I visit:
Look at these cute primroses! Aren’t the pink-yellow petals lovely? It smells like honey and je ne sais quoi…
At their insistence, I approach and inhale. The filaments tickle me a bit.
For a few seconds, no words come to mind. The odor is what it is. At this precise moment, I’m truly enjoying the flower.
But as soon as I interpret the flower as cute, pink, yellow or honey-like, I’m experiencing my idea of the flower.
It’s easy to let others’ opinions define us
“When you look at yourself in a mirror, do you like what you see, or do you judge your body and use all those symbols to tell yourself lies?
Is it really true that you are too short or too tall, too heavy or too thin? Is it really true that you are not beautiful?
Is it really true that you’re not perfect just the way you are?” —Don Miguel Ruiz and Don Jose Ruiz
Even though words are mere symbols, we’ve collectively imbued them with meaning. So, words do have the power to evoke images, ideas and feelings.
We can leverage this power to positively influence how we see ourselves.
That’s why the Ruizes encourage us to live by the First Agreement: Be impeccable with your word.
Instead of saying, I’m ugly. I’m dumb. I’m not good enough, affirm that you’re worthy.
Make sure your actions line up.
Use words to create more joy.
Beliefs distort reality
The Ruizes write that our experience of life shifts according to our beliefs.
Imagine a cinema where you could watch a movie of your own life through your point of view. Then, you visit the next theater and discover a film of your dad’s life through his point of view.
As you watch your loved ones’ films, you realize that they perceive you, themselves and the world much differently from you. Your loved ones might suddenly seem like strangers.
Perhaps you don’t know yourself as well as you thought.
So, it’s best to avoid taking things personally (the Second Agreement). Because everyone’s projecting their views onto each other. And you’re only responsible for your own actions and decisions.
My dad used to criticize me for everything
For example: in my gymnastics class, all the girls slicked their hair back in tight ponytails. One day, I came downstairs, refreshed for the day, with a perfect ponytail (my 9 year-old hands had tied and retied it for 20 minutes!).
My dad glanced above his newspaper at me and immediately grumbled, You shouldn’t tie your hair so tight. Do you want your hair to fall out?
Day after day, year after year, his criticisms whittled me down.
20 years later, my dad owned up to his overcritical ways. I had healed enough to receive his apology and even listen to his perspective.
Like watching both of our movies at the same time, I saw how our respective beliefs pushed us towards certain actions.
My dad believed in a dog-eat-dog world. So, he thought the best way to show his kids love and prepare them for success was to criticize them.
So, don’t make assumptions (Third Agreement).
Communicate your needs and wants.
Question your beliefs, but hold others accountable for their words and actions as well.
Perfection includes your “flaws”
“The sun is perfect, the stars are perfect, the planets are perfect, but when it comes to the humans, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ The truth is that everything in creation is perfect, including the humans.” —Don Miguel Ruiz and Don Jose Ruiz
What if we believed that we’re already perfect?
That our good and bad traits are in their right place?
Too much of a good thing can be harmful. And our worst traits can teach us how to be wiser, if we listen.
The yin yang symbol (or rather, its principles 😉) has become my North Star. What goes up must come down. To know joy, we must know misery.
In other words, all of life is interrelated. The yin yang symbol illustrates the overarching perfection of the universe.
When you brood about past hurts or failures, find the “gift” or opportunity.
For example, healing from emotional abuse has helped me cultivate empathy. Today, I’m grateful to offer coaching services to help women be more confident and joyful.
Your life is a journey of learning and unlearning who you think you are. As long as you always do your best (Fourth Agreement), you can rest easy at the end of the day.
We’re here to evolve towards more love, peace and joy!
Set realistic goals. Remember, the meaning of “perfect” depends on who you ask. Besides, most people chase “perfection” to cover up their insecurities, fears and shame.
Be skeptical, but learn to listen (Fifth Agreement). Media images, beliefs and your inner critic all need to be challenged. Respect other people’s truths.
Together, let’s redefine what it means to be a “perfect” human:
Perfect \ˈpər-fikt \ (adj): being entirely yourself, a magnificent work in progress
How to be perfect
At one point or another, we’ve all believed that we’re unlovable.
But that was an illusion.
Now, it’s time to challenge your beliefs, uplift yourself with positive words and embrace your journey.
By practicing the Five Agreements, you filter out others’ voices and discover who you truly are.
Then, you can love yourself—whether you made a mistake, feel awful or are naked in front of a mirror.
Accepting yourself and others brings you peace, which then radiates to everyone around you.
That’s how we change the world.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading on how to be a magnificent work in progress: