I am a recovering perfectionist.
Six months ago, I didn’t even know that I was a perfectionist - I thought I was just an achiever with high standards. I was living in denial. In late September, I attended a leadership training where I received feedback from my community that one of my blind spots is I try to be/look perfect and because of this, appear calculated in the way I engage with life. Upon hearing this, my first instinct was to armor up and defend myself. I resisted like crazy. Me? Calculated? A need to look perfect? No way. I am a free spirited, go-with-the-flow girl - I am NOT calculated.
Psychologist Carl Jung once said that “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” And today this viewpoint is generally abbreviated to “what you resist persists.” This statement held true for me, because as I continued to resist the feedback, I noticed the behavior growing even more robust and felt unable to contain it. Overtime, I slowly started to open up to the idea that for twenty seven years I had been a closeted perfectionist, and didn’t even know it. Once I acknowledged and began accepting this reality, I started noticing all the ways in which the behavior shows up in my life - from my friendships, to work, to my leadership roles, to my relationship, and even with my family. I began to see how my need to look and act perfect had harmfully impacted my life.
So what is perfectionism? The remarkable Brene Brown, a research professor who has spent a decade studying vulnerability, courage, and shame, has been instrumental in helping me understand my closeted perfectionist nature. Brown says, “Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.” My perfectionism has been a cover up, a protective layer to avoid my deep rooted fear of failure - it has been an attempt to hide from life. Brown also says, “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 flight.” In my attempt to falsely shield myself from failure, I have also cut off the possibility of really being seen, just as I am. And I say falsely because perfection doesn’t even exist! It is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality because the very nature of humanity is imperfection.
Here is how perfectionism has held me back:
I am self critical: What I do is never “enough.” Instead of celebrating all that I am and all that I’ve accomplished, I focus on what I don’t have, how I could do better, and therefore, feel perpetually discontent.
I am critical of others: As is always the case, the way we engage with ourselves determines how we engage with others. I hold the same impossible standard of perfection with the people around me, so when they inevitably fall short of it, I resort to criticism. I can tolerate being critical of myself to some degree, but being critical of the people I love, is the part of myself I am least proud of.
I disconnect from emotions: When I allow perfectionism to drive me, my emotions take a back seat. Emotions are the channel through which life expresses itself, so by suppressing my emotions, I cut myself off from life. This behavior can often leave me feeling numb, detached, and distant from the people I love.
I live In denial: When I don’t acknowledge how I really feel or the reality of some painful life circumstances, I end up living in the land of denial. “Everything is fine,” I tell myself. When in reality, everything is not fine. And that’s ok. Often times, this patterns leads to an uncontrollable explosion of emotion.
I play small: There are so many ways I hold back in life and don’t let myself be fully seen due to a sometimes paralyzing fear of looking bad or getting it “wrong.” I don’t speak up when I want to, I don’t express myself the way I long to, I don’t try new things. Science actually proves that the nature of growth is error, and the nature of skill is failure. So if I’m not willing to get it “wrong,” to fuck up, to look bad, then I will never truly reach my potential.
So what about my recovery process?
Since accepting that I am a perfectionist, I have been on a path of embracing my exquisitely imperfect humanity. I haven’t wronged myself for being this way (85 % successful at doing this), but instead work to meet myself with curiosity and compassion. We all have our programming, and my belief is that only when we illuminate and acknowledge our programming with curiosity and compassion are we able to consciously shift it. By building awareness, we are given the gift of choice. So, now that I’ve identified my perfectionist behavior, I can start to change it.
Here is how being in recovery has opened me up; Here is how it has set me free:
I feel more and think less: I am more in touch with my emotions than ever before and have begun to understand my body’s beautiful intelligence, something I’ve historically overlooked. Truly feeling my emotions can be incredibly intense, and at times they hijack me until all I want to do is curl up in a ball and cry. And that’s ok too. I am still learning what it means to skillfully engage with my emotions; how to feel without letting my emotions take over. More to come here.
I am more accepting of myself: I am learning to welcome all of who I am - my anxiety, self-doubt, fears - it all gets to be here; it all deserves a voice. When I let go of being perfect, I invite in space to celebrate and savor myself, just as I am.
I feel more connected: I have felt a stronger, more intimate connection to myself, loved ones, and the world around me. I am naturally very intellectual, and can quickly become trapped by the inner workings of my mind. Dropping the perfectionism act allows me to open up to true intimacy - and while it can feel terrifying at times, intimacy is the most beautiful and tender experience of life.
I am more self expressed: Releasing perfectionism has allowed me to express parts of myself that I’ve historically suppressed and even forgotten about. Sometimes I’m expressing intense anxiety and sometimes it’s ecstatic joy. Both emotions matter because expressing the full spectrum of emotion is part of the human experience. I don’t need to hide any part of myself - how incredibly freeing!
I am more aligned to my life’s purpose: My life purpose is to embody heart and truth for the sake of inspiring others to do the same. The moment I got radically honest with myself, and began embracing my imperfection, I grew closer to who I really am, and to truly living my life’s purpose. This, above all, brings me deep, and rich fulfillment.
Brown says: “We can’t do anything brave if we hold onto perfectionism.” While I have deeply ingrained behavioral patterns, now that I’m aware of them, they no longer have to rule me. It’s scarier on this end, but it’s real and true, and I am way more interested in truth and bravery than I am in living a life of denial.
To all you recovering perfectionists out there - you are not alone! I am on this journey with you.