“Perfect is the enemy of the good” — Voltaire
I confess to being a recovering perfectionist. Truthfully, perfectionism has been a devil on my shoulder for as long as I can remember, and it is a tendency that I still struggle with. Perfectionism is a powerful beast, and one that can insidiously invade many aspects of life, creating a roadblock to courage, inner peace, and joy.
I used to describe my perfectionism as a blessing and a curse. I saw that it was connected to my fears of never being good enough, but I also believed that it pushed me to achieve.
Reflecting back on my life, I now see that perfectionism has in fact been a ball-and-chain. My desire to work hard and strive for excellence has helped me in many positive ways. Perfectionism, on the other hand, has led me to run from opportunities and stopped me from trying new things.
What underlies perfectionism is a deep and profound fear of failure. It is a dangerous game to link our “worthiness” to how we perform, what we achieve, and how we are perceived by others. Growing up, I didn’t play sports and quit the piano. I avoided courses at university that I was interested in and stopped writing poetry and dancing. I skipped fun events with my friends or hid in the bathroom when I felt ugly. Unfortunately, I know this story is far too common.
No one can achieve impossible goals. Yup, I am reminding us all that absolutely no one is perfect and most endeavours, especially creative ones, are impossible to do perfectly! Unfortunately, to the perfectionist whose self-worth is tied to doing, looking and achieving perfect, the choice is often avoidance over failure. Activities that are pursued cannot be enjoyed wholeheartedly because they are overshadowed by a gnawing sense that they should be done better.
Impetus for Change: The Desire to Create a Positive Home Environment
One of the driving forces for me to seek a healthier approach to life — and this includes working to intentionally move away from perfectionism — has been my children. As a mother, I am determined to create a positive home environment and raise happy children. It would be both counterproductive and painful for me to “pass down” a cognitive-behavioural process, or way of thinking and behaving, that prevents them from being happy with who they are. Beyond this, I would hate for my children to grow up with a belief, conscious or not, that they could never do enough or be enough to please me. While I do see that I am harder on myself than anyone else, it’s not difficult to imagine how the people around me could be collateral damage: No one can live up to perfection. It is also my experience, both personally and professionally, that perfectionism often partners with judgement and a hyper-critical perspective. Our own self-criticism can unintentionally spill over into how we view other people, places, products, and experiences. To truly thrive and bring more connection and joy into our lives, we need to love and accept ourselves and each other for the perfectly imperfect, imperfectly perfect creatures we are!
Secrets of a Happy Life: Self-acceptance and Human Connection
As with many things, insight and awareness are fundamental to change. Still, liberating oneself from the chains of perfectionism can be easier said than done. It is a work-in-progress, and we certainly can’t be expected to be perfect at it!
One thing that has helped me tremendously in my own journey — I would go so far as to describe it as life-changing — was discovering the work of Brené Brown. For those of you who are interested, I invite you to check out Dr. Tara's Sunshine Resource page for the link to her inspiring TED talk on vulnerability. I have also provided some wellness tools & exercises.
Addendum: Click here for my follow-up blog on how to break free from the perfectionism trap. And please share your feedback, personal experiences and stories. We are in this together and we can support and learn from each other.