“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement or growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly, and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.” –Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Maybe it’s semantics. Maybe those of us who strive to be the very best we can be should call ourselves strivers instead of perfectionists. Maybe we just like the word perfectionist because it connotes striving. Maybe we really do accept the fact that we’re human and mistakes are inevitable so perfectionism is just a handy word to describe the heights we want to achieve in spite of our humanity. Maybe that’s true for you. I think, upon self-examination, that it’s not true for me. I think perfectionism is a word I have hidden behind, in an effort to avoid blame, judgment, and shame. Whose? Mostly, my own.
My growing-up and young adult selves believed that making mistakes was unacceptable. I expected myself to be the best, the smartest, the wisest, the most, the (insert superlative of your choice)…. And when I wasn’t—because I couldn’t possibly be—I engaged in guilting, excusing, rationalizing, whatever it took to assuage the guilt and shame of not measuring up to my own impossible standards.
What my older, wiser self is learning, is Jane Nelsen’s mantra throughout the Positive Discipline program: mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn! I didn’t really like that when I first heard it. Oh yes, Jane, absolutely! MISTAKES ARE WONDERFUL OPPORTUNITIES for other people TO LEARN! Me, I get to learn from them but only after I’m black and blue inside from the beating I give myself for not getting it right the FIRST time! (Family mantras growing up: If you want it done right, do it yourself! Do it right the first time! I can’t help it, really. It’s in my genes.)
They don’t make band-aids for internal bruising.
I’m not sure exactly at what point I decided that mistakes are wonderful opportunities for ME to learn, too. It’s been a gradual realization that my learning is faster—and deeper—when I can simply say, “Hey, I didn’t do that as well as I’d like to have. (Or as well as so-and-so did.) What do I need to do to fix this…or, how can I do it better the next time?”
I can say that, since I have adopted this frame of mind, the twenty-ton shield has gotten rusty and begun to disintegrate. Without it in front of me, I can more readily
see who I might ask for support, where I might adjust my schedule to make it more manageable, when I might let go of the illusion that there is only one RIGHT way…and see alternate POSSIBILITIES for myself or the situation. I am more readily a team player because doing it right may not mean doing it myself because two brains (…or three…or four) are better than one and collaborating gives me insight into other possibilities that my brain by itself couldn’t see.
Not only can I see better without the shield blocking my view, but others can see me better, as well. There I am: striving, reaching, exploring, in need of support sometimes and vulnerable in my humanity. It’s a little scary—sometimes, it’s a LOT scary—to be SEEN. But it is when I am being seen that others can decide to join me in my striving…or not.
When I hide behind perfectionism, there’s no room for anyone else, which makes it kind of lonely. I’ve decided I like the feeling of allowing others to join my imperfect self in an imperfect world. There’s greater connection there, and I become my better self when I am connected to other striving selves.
I’m not perfect at accepting my imperfection yet (note the irony of that statement—I did!). But I’m working on it. Probably I’m a 7 out of 10, with my goal being to achieve a 9. Because nobody’s perfect, right?
Where are you on the perfectionist vs striver scale? How might you give up an ounce of control in order to gain a pound of collaboration?
What possibilities would open up for you if you shifted your expectations of yourself toward doing YOUR best instead of being THE best?
When you crawl out from behind the shield…what do you see?