“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” ~ Alice Walker
The Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi suggests that there is beauty within the imperfections of life, of accepting your imperfections and making the most of life. This Buddhist teaching is all about transience and aging gracefully. While I love this sentiment and think it’s definitely worth aspiring for, I can’t help but wonder how we can embrace our beautifully messy imperfect lives when so many of us are plagued with the notion of perfectionism?
In her groundbreaking book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown shares how “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable”. She suggests that there is “magic in the mess”. Just imagine how liberating this would be!
What is perfectionism and how do we let go of it? Firstly, perfectionism is not about “striving to be your best” or about about “healthy achievement or growth” or self-improvement. Brene’ defines perfectionism as “the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame”. It’s all about attempting to earn approval and acceptance from others. Healthy striving is self-focused (how can I improve?) while perfectionism is other-focused (what will they think?).
Ironically, as I’m researching and writing this post, I find myself spending way too much time attempting to present it “perfectly”. It’s easy to get caught in the perfectionist trap of black/white, all or nothing thinking, being highly self-critical of not getting it perfect, therefore tempted to do nothing at all. I want to be helpful, useful, add value, and have a lot to share but instead of trusting myself and my experience, I get stuck researching, trying to imagine what you need, what it should look like, and how it can best satisfy you. An infinity loop of “analysis paralysis” with all or nothing thinking, focusing on the flaws, and getting stuck in overwhelm where nothing is good enough.
Perfectionism is debilitating and can limit you from trying things. Sometimes when I’m doing or trying something new and I don’t think it’s good enough, I may just stop doing it. I never considered myself a perfectionist because I never thought of myself as “perfect”. Yet, what I’ve learned is that it’s the belief that anything short of perfect is unacceptable and feeling like I wasn’t doing “it” right (whatever “it” was) just isn’t good enough. It also explains my tendency to procrastinate on things that are important to me and that I know I’m capable of. Instead of getting started, analysis paralysis sets in so nothing happens. I didn’t realize how much perfectionism is at the cruxt of procrastination. Often labelled as lazy, what’s really going on inside is the belief that whatever I produce won’t be good enough or that people won’t like it. Underneath is the fear of not being seen as perfect.
It can also hold you back from doing or trying new things until your life is “perfect”. Maybe you tell yourself you’ll be happy and accepting of yourself and your life when you lose a little weight, when you get fit, when you find love, get a particular job, have a family, or obtain financial independence. Or maybe you hold certain expectations of about how those you love should be or should act, and what your relationships with them should look like.
Perfectionism and self-criticism can manifest in many areas of your life, such as in your work or school, and in your relationships. Maybe its a small persistent nagging voice in your head, or maybe its the voice of one of your parents, your partner, or organizational or religious leaders. Do you hold an image or idea of how your life should be and when this expectation is not met, do you have trouble accepting the reality that is your life?
Just imagine if you could give up on wishing things were different from how they actually are. Imagine if you could lessen your sense of striving to get somewhere, to change something, to be more, to have more. Imagine yourself going through your days with a greater sense of acceptance – the type of acceptance that allows a softening within you that reduces the drive of wanting, wishing, or striving.
How do we let go of our perfectionism?
- Recognize and acknowledge it. It’s important to simply label the feeling or behaviour as perfectionism, and recognize it for what it is.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Instead of seeing mistakes as failures, view them as a critical part of the learning process.
- Set more realistic goals. Write down your long term goals, then write down smaller, weekly achievable tasks.
- Enjoy the process. With healthy striving, it’s the trying that really matters. Give yourself a mantra such as “done is better than perfect”; “just trying things”; “my best is good enough”; “just do it”, etc.
- Decide what level of imperfection you can tolerate. What is good enough? Where is your best good enough? Give yourself and others permission to make mistakes and be human.
- Explore your unique strengths and predominant needs. Become more aware of your unique abilities and talents, and seek out situations or opportunities where you can use or apply them.
- Practice vulnerability and self-disclosure in safe spaces and with strong relationships. Share your fears, your doubts, and your successes that create your story.
And seriously, who really likes being around those “perfect people” anyway! I don’t know about you, but it’s those “imperfect people” that I think are the most fun or interesting and that I enjoy the most. So why is it that we get this idea in our brains that we need to be “perfect”? Do we think they’ll love us more? Isn’t there something wonderfully bold and liberating in saying yes to our beautiful, imperfect messy lives.
Now, it’s your turn.
Are you plagued with perfectionism? What is your perfectionism stopping you from doing? What tools or strategies do you use to move past perfectionism? Share in the comments.
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