I’ve made a shocking discovery.
Have you ever struggled to find the right word (or words) to describe something? And when you finally find the perfect description you can feel that it fits? Almost like Cinderella’s missing slipper?
I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s books in rapid succession, and have been having many of these “ah ha” moments. I just finished reading The Gifts of Imperfection, but a line early on in the book struck me deeply.
Brown describes herself as “a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist.”
(Ah ha! You’ve hit the nail on the head, Brené.)
I, too, am a recovering perfectionist (and an aspiring good-enoughist). This was the exact description I needed to make sense of my own inner conflict.
You may be thinking, “So what? I’m not a perfectionist, so why should I care about this?”
The hard truth is that perfectionism sneaks into our lives in lots of different ways. You may not even realize when it’s taking control.
Let’s dig a bit deeper to examine the pervasiveness of perfectionism.
What is perfectionism?
To fully understand the problem, we have to define it. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown gives us some interpretations to work with.
Number 1: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.”
It’s not about growth or self-improvement. According to Brown, we try to maintain the appearance of perfection as a way to minimize or avoid pain. We attempt to “live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect” to shield ourselves from judgment or shame.
Why do you think most of your Facebook feed is filled with people’s best moments? You know, the ones that make you feel like your own life is lacking? Yeah, that’s perfectionism at work.
Number 2: “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect.”
Perfection is not attainable. I repeat, perfection is not attainable.
Brown writes, “perfectionism is more about perception–we want to be perceived as perfect.” Unfortunately, other people’s perception is 100% out of our control. No matter how much time and energy you spend trying to curate your outside appearance, you can’t make other people perceive you how you want them to. (That is, of course, unless you’re a telepathic hypnotist.)
Number 3: “Perfectionism is addictive”
It’s a never-ending cycle. We use perfectionism to protect ourselves from judgment or shame. But inevitably we will feel the pain of one of these things. And when we do, Brown says “we believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough.” Rather than question our flawed logic, we jump right back into “our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.”
Perfectionism is downright scary in my opinion. Let’s look at how it can slither its way into your life.
Self-Sabotage at Work
Perfectionism can present itself as a debilitating affliction.
In my own life, it prevents me from putting myself or my work out into the world. It keeps me from allowing myself to be vulnerable.
Brown refers to this particular state of suffering as “life-paralysis.” It’s the deep fear of failure that prevents us from following our dreams. Life-paralysis causes missed opportunities because we’re too scared to share anything with the world that might be imperfect.
What does life-paralysis look like in real life?
- Not being able to finish a task. Or what I like to call a case of the “not good-enoughs.”
- Completely restarting a task. Due to feeling a need to start over and “do it right.”
- Doing all the things (AKA distraction). Reorganizing your closet to put off writing that paper. Cleaning the bathroom instead of working on an important project.
Perfectionism can also manifest as imposter syndrome, or the belief that you are less competent than you actually are. People who experience imposter syndrome have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”
For these folks, self-doubt creates a similar life-paralysis effect. The fear of being found out as incompetent is enough to stop them in their tracks.
Regardless of how perfectionism presents itself, it’s a serious problem. Once it takes hold, perfectionism is like getting stuck in quicksand. The harder you fight it, the stronger the pull.
The source of the perfectionist problem is fear of vulnerability. So how do we combat it and embrace imperfection?
1. Let go of what other people think. (Just do you!)
I know, I know. Easier said than done.
It takes courage to be true to yourself instead of allowing others’ perception of you influence your actions. It’s scary to show your true colors, especially if you’ve been hiding them for so long.
Until we are true to ourselves, though, we lack the capacity to truly connect with others. This quote from Pema Chödrön says it best:
Learning how to be kind to ourselves, learning how to respect ourselves, is important. The reason it’s important is that, fundamentally, when we look into our own hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering. We’re discovering the universe.
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2. Practice self-compassion.
Start small, and give yourself room to mess up being imperfect.
(Can you really mess up being imperfect? For me, and for a lot of my fellow perfectionist types, I’d argue the answer is YES.)
Try sending an email with a typo, or letting the dirty dishes stay in the sink overnight. Ask yourself why you grasp onto these things when you find it’s hard to let them go as-is.
You will inevitably have times when you struggle with your imperfection practice. That’s where self-compassion comes in. Be kind to yourself when you get that feeling of wanting things to be “just so.”
Self-compassion is just as much of a practice as imperfection.
3. Seek support from friends and family.
Remind yourself what’s really important.
Does it matter if your house isn’t spotless when you have friends over? Who cares if you run into someone from high school at the grocery store when you’re in sweatpants and no makeup?
Your friends and family love you for who you are. Not for what you achieve.
Spend more time with the people who will support you and you’ll find a greater sense of life satisfaction.
How can YOU start embracing imperfection?
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