I love it when I find research to support what I’ve believed to be true. Followers of my blog know that I refer to myself as a recovering perfectionist. A couple of years ago, my boss at the time commented on how exceptional a spreadsheet was that I had created and noted how much of a perfectionist I was. Of course, I was flattered by the compliment, but told her that I strive for excellence rather than perfection and explained the difference that I saw in the two. She didn’t seem to grasp it completely, but commented that whatever I wanted to call it, it was great. I walked away thinking I have more work to do if others still perceive me as a perfectionist. I was glad that I was bold enough to provide a different perspective for consideration. As I mature and uncover new things about myself, I’ve learned that my previous acts of perfectionism have been filling the need to compensate for perceived and believed deficiencies within myself. I’m tired of covering up. I’m prepared to risk others knowing the truth about me. The truth is that I am imperfect.
My latest read is a treasure by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, called The Gifts of Imperfection. I admire the author’s body of work and love that she’s a social worker like myself. This is the type of read that you take in a few passages at a time, then pause to digest. I keep it close to me on my overcrowded nightstand. When I’m up for it, I read a few paragraphs or chapters, contemplate, digest, absorb, and repeat on a another day as I go through the chapters, sometimes skipping ahead and sometimes going back. Lately, I’ve been contemplating my life experiences and taking time to self-empathize with my upbringing, my challenges, and what I’ve overcome. Major life events can spark serious self-reflection and my breast cancer journey certainly qualifies as a major life event. The end of radiation treatment last month was a very emotional time for me. I didn’t expect it to affect me as it has because I’ve been a warrior through the whole process, staying focused on making a full recovery.
There is a chapter in Brene’s (yes, we’re on a first name basis) book, The Gifts of Imprefection, on Letting Go of Perfectionism. That chapter was written for me. And guess what? She also refers to herself as a recovering perfectionist, so it’s not just me. Brene points out some myths about perfectionism, which I will share here for you to contemplate.
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. 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 taking flight.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism, is at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other – focused – What will they think?
If you’ve never encountered this information, I can see it being mind blowing. I’ve known some aspects of this for a while through my own personal work and I find it mind blowing to read on paper. How common is it to hear someone being referred to as a perfectionist? Some people even view it as a compliment to be called a perfectionist. Some people refer to themselves as perfectionists. Think about how you were raised? These 2 myths about perfectionism challenge everything I was taught growing up about how to be and how to live. A fact is that my family has experienced generational poverty, abuse, and abandonment. These experiences have undoubtedly shaped how my family learned to cope with life. At some point, I found myself behind a wall that constantly grew taller and wider. Therefore, I find freedom in learning how to not let my actions be led by what others think, but by how I want to improve. I find freedom in letting go. This takes work. It’s a lifelong process.
This is heavy stuff. Next time, I will share Brene’s actual definition of perfectionism and attempt to unpack that.