From Perfectionism into Self-Compassion and Love: A Journey

Today I would like to share a guest post with you from my dear friend Carmen Acevedo Butcher, PhD. Carmen is an author, teacher, poet, and an award-winning translator of spiritual texts. Her dynamic work around the evolution of language and the necessity of just and inclusive language has garnered interest from various media, including the BBC and NPR’s Morning Edition. A Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year and Fulbright Senior Lecturer, Acevedo Butcher’s work in translation has made accessible works by such writers as The Cloud’s Anonymous, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. She currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, in the College Writing Programs. Visit her online at

I was dating a kind British man with Love-Me-Do Paul-McCartney good looks. Newly engaged, we took a train from London to the West Midlands to visit his parents. We were offered a cup of tea on arrival, then his mother pulled out a large shoebox, saying, “Here are his baby pictures!” I was delighted. My fiancé, reddening with shyness, went out into the garden with his dad. As she shared her prized photos of a tousled-haired boy, his older brother, and extended family, it was an initiation into family history.

That sweet experience has helped me better understand my love of word histories, aka, etymologies. Studying a word’s etymology is like rummaging through its large shoebox of family photos, a linguistic trip down memory lane. An etymology, or word’s history, tells its stories, and stories are sacred changemakers.

Struggling to read while growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia, I first gravitated to etymology because knowing a word’s history gave it some heft. While words and their letters constantly moved and swapped places on pages, immersing in their histories began to steady them. It became a mindfulness practice that helped stabilize words for me. Slowly they became less intimidating.

Studying etymologies also lets me question assumptions baked into words over centuries of use. The word perfect is one. Raised in a Thou-Shalt-Not belief system, I heard repeatedly, “Be perfect” as part of a make-no-mistakes doctrine with a long list of Don’t-Dos. Introjecting this stern, merciless interior constable, my psyche activated severe self-loathing and demanded flawless perfection. It wasn’t freedom.

Bay Area author Anne Lamott reminds in Bird by Bird: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” In Oneing, Center for Action and Contemplation teacher and clinical psychologist James Finley teaches that we are God’s beloveds, and “mystical nonviolence” is an antidote to Self-aggression.

“God created you as God’s beloved, as someone to whom God could completely give the infinity of Godself away as the mystery of who you are in your nothingness without God. All that is true for stones, trees, and stars too. You’ve been endowed by God with the gift to realize it, the gift to taste that oneness.…The first taste of what I would call mystical nonviolence is that we will not do violence to the infinity of ourselves, that we will not do violence to the God-given, Godly nature of life itself.” (You can read the full article HERE.)

This “mystical nonviolence” finds a home in the practical verb perfect. Its reassuring etymology includes the -fect root from a common Latin verb facere for “do or make.” In fact, countless words can’t exist without it: fact, affection, effective, confection, artifact, factory, facsimile, fashion, faculty, satisfaction, sufficient, facile, manufacture, and feat, to name a few. Adding per- “thoroughly” indicates dedicating to something by making repeated attempts.

Perfect is a word of many chances, meaning: “Do and redo until something’s done thoroughly, as best you can.” For the seventeenth-century Discalced Carmelite lay brother Brother Lawrence, assigned to cook for 100 brothers at his Paris monastery, perfect is synonymous with God as Love and our maturing in Love. In Spiritual Maxims he says God or Love is “infinitely perfect”:

“Loving God in truth is recognizing really, presently, and in spirit that God is what Love is, infinitely perfect, infinitely kind, infinitely far from all harming, and so on for every divine goodness.”

The friar’s simple approach to prayer is that we return to Love briefly, as often as we can: “We always look to God and their kindness in all we do, say, and begin, since our purpose is to become the wisest lovers of God in this life.” He knows perfection as the flaw-filled process of learning to love well by gently returning to God or Love “again and again” and not giving up.

Whenever I see per-fect or per-fection, it reminds me that I can begin again, making another attempt at loving. It also prompts me to cultivate self-compassion. If I get it wrong because I am human and sometimes I get it wrong, I have the choice and chance to be honestly sorrowful before Farnearness, as Marguerite Porete calls Divinity. I can make amends, atone, try again and do better, and grow in loving wisdom.

Brother Lawrence teaches that we mature in or perfect this wisdom by focusing the mind/heart/soul/body on Love rather than living in perpetual distraction. Focus, Latin for “hearth or fireplace,” is a “coming home” to ourselves, while dis-traction is anything that “pulls us—like a tractor pulls things—away (dis-) from our home, or Love focus.”            

The friar writes to a distracted religious, saying we all stumble, then return: “You’re not the only one who has distracting thoughts. The mind is extremely likely to wander. . . . [A] solution for this is to admit our stumbles and humble ourselves before God. . . . Do your best to keep your mind in God’s presence. If it wanders or pulls away sometimes, don’t be discouraged. . . . We must use the will gently to bring it back.”

He describes his practice of the presence to a laywoman: “In the middle of your tasks you can comfort yourself with Love as often as you can. . . During your meals and conversations, lift up your heart to God sometimes. The slightest little awareness will always be very pleasant.” He shares phrases you can use for this prayer practice: “My God, I am all yours,” “God of love, I love you with all my heart,” “Love, create in me a new heart,” adding, “Or any other phrases love produces on the spot.”

My ongoing exploration of words and of Love helps me see that perfection has quite a lot of nothing-to-do-with a painful small-ego striving after an impossible-to-achieve flawlessness. Instead, it simply means, “a becoming kinder.”  

These quotations are from Carmen’s Practice of the Presence: A Revolutionary Translation. It offers a wide range of readers access for the first time to the complete Brother Lawrence. Freeing the text from centuries of dogmatic, binary language, its approach is fresh and inclusive as well as authentic, accurate, and transformative.  

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