Ah, perfection. The impossible goal that we aim for and admire when perceived in others. We watch HGTV and dream of living in perfect homes, use filters on social media to make our skin look flawless and our closet is filled with spanx to keep things looking tight and right. Some even own the identity of being a perfectionist and wear it like a badge of honour, attributing their high standards and work ethic to that identity. But what is perfectionism and is it helpful?
Perfectionism is a personality trait with high expectations driven by a harsh inner critic when experiencing perceived failure. Brene Brown writes in, The Gifts of Imperfection, ‘Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.’ Ouch.
Perfectionism isn’t something we are born with, rather it’s a defensive structure that developed over time. Spend a few hours with any child under 5 years old and you’ll witness bold emotional expressions and relentless demands regardless of time, space or location. Yet, somewhere along the way people learn to bend, shift and adjust in order to be loved and avoid perceived rejection.
Therefore the quest for perfectionism is the quest to gain approval, validation and/or acceptance by proving you are worthy based on what you do instead of who you are. It’s rooted in the fear that when you fall short, you will experience the painful emotions of shame, blame and/or judgement.
So, perhaps we are not aiming for perfection, but rather running away from pain that comes with falling short.
Therefore, if you struggle with perfectionism, simply reminding yourself that perfection is impossible is not helpful. Instead increasing your capacity to manage the vulnerability of feeling those uncomfortable emotions that arise when falling short is where the healing happens.
Here are 5 steps to begin your journey towards embracing imperfection:
- Celebrate your success, big and small. Get a new job? Go out for dinner with a friend. Got out of debt? Frame your last bank statement in your home.
- Practice stillness. Stillness reminds your body that you are worthy even when you are not performing.
- Share your mistakes with compassionate people. Even if it’s something small like forgetting your keys at home or forgetting to put the garbage out on garbage day.
- Become childlike. Sing at the top of your lungs, dance like no one is watching and learn how to play again.
- Try something new. Start a hobby, learn a new skill.