Confessions of a recovering perfectionist 1: Embracing imperfections
"To err is human", right?
But then why do we get chastised and scolded by our parents, teachers, bosses, when we make a mistake? And, even worse for our psyche, why do we judge ourselves so harshly?
In their book, When Perfect Isn't Good Enough, Martin Antony, PhD and Richard Swinson, MD discuss how both our biology (genetic make-up), and experiences can cause us to develop of strong fear to making mistakes. As they write: "Perhaps you assume that making mistakes will lead to some terrible consequence that can’t be corrected or undone (such as being fired or ridiculed by others). Or you may believe that making mistakes is a sign of weakness or incompetence." (You can watch Dr. Antony present a TedX talk about his work here.)
I am my own worst enemy in this way. And I know I am not alone in this. High achievers feel the constant pressure to improve and succeed. Like pole vaulters, we have to raise the bar higher and higher after each successful pass.
Until, eventually, the bar becomes too high and we miss.
What we do next is vital.
Most of us will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again.
The first time.
And the second time.
And maybe even the 10th time.
But, eventually, the constant pressure we place on ourselves (or feel is placed on us) to succeed becomes a weight on our shoulders. Over time, it can become overwhelming, exhausting, and discouraging. Some of us react to the ensuing fear of failure by becoming master procrastinators. I definitely fell victim to this trap. We engage in "safety behaviors"; become perfectionists and avoid situations in which we may make mistakes. Often, this pattern is something we develop as children or young adults, well before we are conscious of the long-term effects.
How do we break the cycle?
Breaking the cycle means having to change our mindset, our habits. Over the past few years, as I have worked to break my pattern of perfectionist behavior. I have tried lots of things. I've gone on retreats, sought therapy, read books. I eagerly jotted down words of wisdom that other people shared and plastered them on post-it notes on my desk and wall. There are just too many to list here. I'll share 4 and hope that you will comment below with some of your favorites too!
"You are not your past, your feelings, you successes, or your failures. You are You. In this moment. Now." -Gaia Polloni (The F*ck It Life)
"Perfection doesn't make you feel perfect; it makes you feel inadequate." -Maria Shriver
"When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun and fear is the annoying backseat driver." -Brené Brown
(People have such good advice, don't they? We just have to remember to listen to it.)
But, as anyone who has tried to break a habit or create a new one knows, it can be really, (really, really) hard. That's because a habit is something we do without thinking about it. It has become subconscious. But, when you are trying to break an old habit or create a new one, you have to work on a conscious level. You have to convince your brain that this new behavior is safe and beneficial. This is the process that Mitch Matthews and David Nadler refer to as "the Intellectual Immune System" and I write more about it here.
It was through this work that I first came across Life Coaching as a profession and found my own personal life coach. We talked about how, no matter how old you are, your inner child is always there. She can be your compass, using her childlike innocence and intuition to lead you on life's journey. But she also carries the scars of your past traumas and uses these memories to protect you.
Listening to our inner child can help us become unstuck from these bad habits that we have developed. Here is an exercise you can try:
Imagine taking a walk through your favorite place until you come across a door. You open the door to find a staircase. You walk down that staircase and, at the bottom, you see yourself as a child. She may be sitting in a chair reading a book or playing a game with dolls. Whatever she is doing, you can tell that she is still young and carefree. Take a moment to talk to her. And then you ask her what you can do for her. Listen to her response. She is your authentic self.
When I did this exercise for the first time, I was a bit skeptical. And, to be completely honest, quite nervous that, if she responded to me, what my inner child would say.
Her voice was clear,"Lighten up!"
That's what she said. My inner child did not mince words. She was loud and clear and so spot on. I have too many safety behaviors. I procrastinate from tasks because I'm afraid I won't be able to complete the task perfectly. And I beat myself up because of it. I am SO the person Antony and Swindon describe in their book.
I pledged to the little girl that I would lighten up. And, part of that, for me, has included daily exercise in accepting and embracing my imperfections. Every night, as I review my day, I make sure to think about one or two mistakes I have made. I don't allow myself to judge them. In fact, I try to laugh about it. And, most importantly, I acknowledge that I am not perfect. But, then again, no one is.
I added a new quote to my desk:
Note: I originally published an earlier version of this post on one of my earlier blog sites. In it, I shared a video mishap with potato pancake (latke) flipping. I am so clearly embarrassed! But watching it afterwards, it just cracks me up! And I imagine the scene of a cooking show set where, a chef is filmed perfectly flipping a pancake while there are 100 pancakes on the floor out of frame! No one is perfect. Even top chefs!