On Perfectionism, Risk & the True Self
Sometimes we make life much more complicated that it needs to be. As a recovering perfectionist, I tend to think if I can’t do something amazingly well, or if I can’t see how something I want to do will turn out, then I shouldn’t do it at all.
Not surprisingly, that leads to self-doubt, feeling stuck, and to envy of others who appear perfect (only because I don’t know them well enough.) Over the years, I have learned many strategies for bypassing this tendency of perfectionism.
In my 20’s I was having such difficulty with procrastination and deadlines that I deliberately moved from a job at a weekly newsletter to one at a daily publication where I had to write stories each day. Under the deadline pressure the possibility of perfection wasn’t realistic. I adopted Nietzsche’s quote as my trademark, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” It worked – in that arena.
But lifelong tendencies continue to manifest. For months I have thought about starting a new blog at the intersection of spirituality and psychology, the work of my life and heart. I wanted to write about my reflections on life experiences and readings I encountered that inspired me on the spiritual journey. Yet I held back. What is the perfect concept of the blog? The perfect title? What should it look like visually? Who will read it? And deeper – will people lose respect for me if they see my vulnerability, if I reveal a bit about myself in my flaws and struggles and humanity as I navigate the winding, rocky path of growth in love?
What’s Behind Perfectionism?
Behind perfectionism is the fear of vulnerability and the need for approval. If I don’t perform perfectly, someone might criticize me. At worst, maybe they’ll think I’m a fraud – or unlovable.
Shame is the thing no one wants to talk about, that hollow and queasy feeling in the chest and stomach that tempts us to curl up in a ball in the dark. Shame grows from the fear of disconnection, Brown says. Shame is the nagging sense that there is something about me that if others found out, they would certainly reject me. It’s a horrible feeling, heavy and damp and paralyzing.
Recently, I listened to clinical social worker and research professor Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. Brown set out to research love, belonging and connection and instead found people revealing heartbreak and disconnection, with shame on the underside.
The less you talk about your shame, the more you have it. That’s why therapy – or confession – can be so healing. You find that thing you thought you couldn’t talk about without being rejected does not mean you are defective beyond repair. Others have experienced it, too, in some form. You are heard, understood, or forgiven. You learn to forgive yourself.
The Courage to Be Imperfect
The antidote to shame is the courage to admit being imperfect. It’s the ability to be kind to yourself and others, understanding that the nature of the human condition is to be flawed. It’s the recognition that God loves us anyway, just as we are, even (and maybe especially) when we acknowledge our secrets and weaknesses. It’s experiencing the paradox that when we are weak, and ask God for help, then we become strong. It’s the willingness to risk being authentic, realizing that’s the only way to connect with others.
And although it’s inevitable that some people will not like us when we’re authentic and vulnerable, that doesn’t mean we are bad or unlikable or fraudulent. All it means is they’re not people who at this time can receive what we have to offer. I remind myself of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples – when someone doesn’t receive your peace, let the peace return to you and move on, shaking the dust off your feet.
I learned again last week the importance of authenticity and letting go of the need to be perfect. I was rehearsing a presentation that was developed by a professional retreat team for an upcoming retreat. But what people responded to were the parts I ad-libbed from my own experience. They liked when I lit up talking about my love of Jesus’ promise to be with us always, or talked about the messiness of the change process, or described how the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth inspires me spiritually. The team said they wanted more of ME, not the dry words on the page that someone else had developed and sold.
How can we learn to depart from the boxes that limit us, the unwritten rules about how we’re supposed to do something, or who we think we’re supposed to be? How do we learn to be real, to grow into our true self? By taking risks, having the courage to be vulnerable. And knowing that God loves us for trying and is smiling at us with love – like a parent looking at a 3-year-old learning to dance.