“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."
If a mess inside my drawer, the messy cable box under my desk, or the imperfect wall paint gets you angry; perfectionism might be an issue. On the other hand, if there is a mess, you clean it up and admire the cleanliness; not an issue. It should never make you feel negatively. It’s like trying to walk up an endless escalator that’s going down — you’ll never really get anywhere, but you’re always trying extra hard. You might think that perfectionists are people who seem to have it all together and whose homes are perpetually spotless. Well, that is only sometimes the case.
I am Type A. I’m an Enneagram 1. I love organized spaces, matched sets of white wood hangers, fresh white sheets, fresh towels, and my planner. Scheduling and de-cluttering bring me delight. I have been described as stubborn, rigid, an overachiever, a controller, and some other not-so-kind things. I wore perfectionism as a badge of honor and thought perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence were the same. I focused on never making a mistake. If someone criticized my work, I took it personally (and defensively) because I had worked so hard to make it perfect. My self-worth was tied up in that perfect level of achievement, and I was exhausting myself and alienating those around me by setting an expectation of “perfect.” I had confused perfectionism with excellence, and my work, relationships, and mental health were paying the price.
I used to think perfectionism was a part of who I am. I used to believe perfectionism was a good thing until I realized it’s nothing more than the fear of imperfection. For my inner perfectionist, I was never enough. I learned that it’s not easy to honor who I am in a society that overvalues perfection. I often felt frustrated, depressed, anxious, or angry while trying to meet my standards. We choose to hide behind perfection rather than live in our imperfect, beautiful uniqueness.
A big part of my perfectionism is because, as a child, I learned that when I didn’t get perfect grades, my parents criticized me, “you didn’t work hard enough.” I remember when I was coming home with an almost perfect score, my mom’s first question was: “did anyone get a perfect grade?” I said yes; her answer was, “then you didn’t practice hard enough.” I learned that a lot of my perfectionism stems from not feeling good enough, a common feeling for many women in male-dominated cultures or fields. In the long run, perfectionism is a dead-end way to live. It leaves no room for joy. I am not alone in that feeling, and neither are you.
Perfectionism is usually rooted in shame and fear. For many, the striving for perfection is an attempt to cover up in some other area. For some, it’s fear of being found “not good enough” or feeling guilt or flawed and unworthy” for others, it’s an attempt to secure acceptance or love. The not-so-humble-brag “I’m a perfectionist” can be a real drag for everyone. For one thing, it implies the perfectionist is trying harder than anyone else, which is an arrogant claim.
The antidote to toxic perfectionism is practicing self-compassion. Through self-compassion, we give ourselves permission to be human along our journey toward perfection. Here is a story about kintsugi art which helped me understand the value of imperfection and helped me recover from my never-ending cycle of perfectionism. Ironically, healing my perfectionism might be the one goal that I never fully achieve. But this is actually quite fitting since the opposite of perfectionism is self-acceptance, no matter the state of imperfection.
"In Japan, when a piece of valued pottery breaks, instead of tossing the pieces in the trash, craftsmen practice the 500-year-old art of kintsugi or “golden joinery.” This method restores broken pottery with a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum, resulting in a new imperfect piece that is highly valued. This practice is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means “to find beauty in imperfection.” Like Ernest Hemingway‘s famous line from his book A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Recovering from perfectionistic thinking is not easy, but it can be eased when we find peace and beauty in our imperfections. This acceptance frees us to move forward by taking risks, learning and growing from our mistakes, and letting go of the shame and blame of being imperfect. If you’re somewhere stuck in the cycle of perfectionism, stick the word recovering in front of a perfectionist and join me in the world of Good Enough!
Owning our story and creating it into a meaningful story, empowering yet authentic for us is probably the most powerful thing one can do for happiness and life satisfaction, but also a sense of meaning and a positive relationship with self.
If you wish to “own” your life a bit more, owning your story and perhaps rewriting it might be a great place to start!
ARE YOU READY TO REWRITE YOUR STORY?
“PERFECT IS THE
ENEMY OF THE GOOD.”
The perfect heart
THE PERFECT HEART
Author: Paulo Coelho
A young man was standing in the middle of the town, proclaiming that he had the most beautiful heart in the whole valley. A large crowd gathered, and they all admired his heart, for it was perfect. There was not a mark or a flaw in it.
But an old man appeared at the front of the crowd and said,
“Your heart is not nearly as beautiful as mine.”
The crowd and the young man looked at the old man’s heart. It was beating strongly but full of scars. It had places where pieces had been removed and other pieces put in … but they didn’t fit quite right, and there were several jagged edges. The young man looked at the old man’s heart and laughed.
“You must be joking,” he said. “Compare your heart with mine … mine is perfect, and yours is a mess of scars and tears.”
“ “Yes,” said the old man, “Yours is perfect looking … but I would never trade with you. You see, every scar represents a person to whom I have given my love….. I tear out a piece of my heart and give it to them … and often they give me a piece of their heart which fits into the empty place in my heart, but because the pieces aren’t exact, I have some rough edges.
” Sometimes I have given pieces of my heart away … and the other person hasn’t returned a piece of his heart to me. These are the empty gouges … giving love is taking a chance. Although these gouges are painful, they stay open, reminding me of the love I have for these people, too … and I hope someday they may return and fill the space I have waiting. So how do you see what true beauty is?”
The young man stood silently with tears running down his cheeks. He walked up to the old man, reached into his perfect young, and beautiful heart, and ripped a piece out. He offered it to the old man.
The old man took his offering, placed it in his heart, and then took a piece from his old scarred heart and placed it in the wound in the young man’s heart.
It fit …. but not perfectly, as there were some jagged edges.
The young man looked at his heart, not perfect anymore, but more beautiful than ever since love from the old man’s heart flowed into his.