“When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are not pretending, we are not hiding—we are simply present with whatever is going on inside us. Ironically, it is this very feeling of authenticity that draws people to us, not the brittle effort of perfectionism.” ~Maureen Cooper
Most of my life I have been really good at following the have-tos and oughts of perfectionism.
I have to keep the house clean. What will the company think?
I ought to be pleasant and pleasing. Stop being stubborn. Worse yet, stop being angry.
I should not have told that long story to my coworker. They looked bored. Oh, yes, they were probably bored.
Doing what I thought other people wanted and doing it in just the right way was my attempt to use perfectionism to belong.
We all want to belong, and some of us, myself included, learned that belonging comes with strings attached. If I could control those “strings,” then I wouldn’t have to feel rejected and judged. Perfectionism was a way of exercising that control.
The intense need to meet my too high expectations filtered into every area of my life: relationships, academics, body image.
I remember from an early age becoming obsessed with getting straight A’s in school. Anything less than a 100% was not good enough. Anything below an A- was a moral failing.
I worked out until my BMI was low enough to still be considered “healthy” because I wanted to be pretty enough for other people.
All the perfectionism in my life was a way to protect myself against the inevitability of being judged. Of being seen as someone less than, flawed, failing—human.
And if I wasn’t judged, then I might be liked? Accepted? Maybe even loved? Even if I didn’t like, accept, or love myself.
Perfectionism, at its core, is a drive toward accomplishment, characterized by an internal pressure to avoid harsh criticism and failure.
The problem with this way of thinking is that you can’t control other people. No matter how perfect you try to be, someone will judge you. You will fail. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to maintain the facade of perfection.
Perfectionism is the armor I have worn through my life to protect myself from what is underneath the judgment and criticism. Perfectionism protects me from the fear that I am not good enough. If I am not good enough, then I am not worthy of belonging.
I desperately wanted to be loved, but in trying, I stopped loving myself.
From small details, like what to wear to a party, to big problems, like the realities (and conflicts) of an authentic and healthy relationship, my high expectations made it impossible for me to relax into who I am.
I was constantly beating myself up. I didn’t wear the right outfit. I look too dressed up/not dressed up enough.
I was constantly biting my tongue, hesitating to share bits of myself. What will he think? That part of my personality is too weird, too different, too messy to be valued?
My life was a constant struggle to meet unattainable ideals. The maintenance of which was stressful, all consuming, and riddled with anxiety. Furthermore, no matter how hard I tried, I still didn’t feel like I belonged.
It was not until I decided that my relationship to myself was the problem that I started to see changes.
If I wanted to feel connected to other people, belong to a community, a friendship, a partnership, I had to let go of being perfect.
I had to let people see me authentically, and I had to be willing to let go of the too high expectations that were keeping me from being myself.
To help me let go of perfectionism, I started practicing the art of mindful self-compassion.
The tenants of mindful self-compassion are based off of the work of mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. To explain mindful self-compassion, she coined the term RAIN.
RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture.
Recognize and allow your perfectionism to be what it is.
Based on RAIN, the first two steps of mindful self-compassion are the basis of any mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing non-judgmental awareness to your present moment experience.
In other words, you first recognize or bring awareness to your lived experience in the now and then you allow, without judgment, that experience of thoughts and feelings to flow through you.
When it comes to perfectionism, this means recognizing the need to worry over, hustle through, force, or avoid a particular way of being. It also means allowing those same feelings and thoughts to exist without trying to change them and without trying to act on them.
For example, if I notice I am feeling the need to write and rewrite, edit and re-edit this essay because isn’t “good enough,” then instead of continuing on the track of perfectionist behavior, I can recognize that I am feeling worried and allow those feelings to exist without doing anything to change them.
Investigate the deeper why.
The next step of the RAIN mindfulness technique is investigate. Investigating and the last step of nurture are the two aspects of this technique that have helped me see the biggest changes in my own habit of perfectionism.
Investigating means you dig a little deeper. You ask yourself, why are these feelings and thoughts here? What is actually at the heart of my need to control?
Investigating requires you to be vulnerable with yourself. Are you worried about failing? Do you think that if you let go of control people won’t like you?
In what ways are your perfectionist tendencies guarding your heart?
If we go back to my writing example, the reason why I am trying to perfect the outcome of this essay is because deep down I really, really want you, dear reader, to like it. If you like it, then that means that I am a “good” writer, and I so desperately want to be a good writer.
By investigating my feelings around perfectionism, I get to the real reason for my actions, which is that I want to be accepted. I want to be liked. I want to belong.
Which brings me to the last component of RAIN, nurture.
Nurture the feelings and thoughts behind the perfectionism.
The last step of RAIN, nurture, asks you to take all of your feelings and care for them. How can you give love to the person you are today who is worried about being good enough and worried about belonging?
Maybe this looks like reaffirming you are good enough and that everyone feels like you feel right now from time to time.
Maybe this looks like journaling about your feelings or talking it out with a good friend.
Maybe this looks like giving yourself a hug, taking a warm shower, or doing some breath work, then going back to the task when you feel ready.
Ultimately, nurturing what is underneath the perfectionism means giving yourself a bit of a break. You don’t have to do everything just the right way for it to be enough.
For me, in the context of perfectionism related to publishing this essay, I would take a break, go for a walk, and remind myself that 80% is good enough.
Overall, RAIN is an incredible mindfulness technique for letting go of perfectionism.
By using this technique, perfectionism is less at the forefront of my life. RAIN helps me let go of the big feelings and thoughts associated with perfectionism and tend to the underlying beliefs and assumptions I have about myself that contribute to it.
Ultimately, I have learned that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and that being imperfect still makes me worthy of belonging. The RAIN technique helps me see that I am good enough for others and, most importantly, I am good enough for myself.