“You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle but you are worthy of love and belonging.” ~Brene Brown
There’s nothing perfect about me, and I’m okay with that… now. This wasn’t the case for most of my life, though. In fact, I’ve been a perfectionist for almost thirty years. I’m not counting the first five years of my life when I was free to be as messy and magical as I wanted.
In third grade I asked my mom to buy me a stack of lined notebooks and colored pens. I spent hours neatly labeling each notebook by class, date, and assignment deadlines. If I made one mistake, like a jagged cursive letter or a misspelling, I’d rip out the page and begin again on a fresh sheet.
This was tiring but it was also a compulsion. Everything had to be neat and ordered or else—or else I’d be out of control, scared, and overwhelmed.
Before the divorce, my parents rarely fought, but my father’s frequent absences and his coolness toward my sister and me sparked a firestorm in me.
Expressing anger wasn’t a thing in our family, especially for women. That simply wasn’t Christian enough or loving enough or good enough.
So I denied my anger and my sadness and, most of all, my fear that my family was breaking apart and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Inside I burned like coals after a long night’s fire. I never let it get too hot. I played the good child, the loving daughter and sister, but my life was out of control. Thus began my long dance with perfectionism.
In my twenties I tried to be a perfect girlfriend, perfect student, and perfect employee, all the while denying the expression of my full self, imperfections and all. Even when I dressed the part of the disaffected adolescent, I was perfect at it all the way down to my spiked hair and scuffed Doc Martins.
At parties, I perfected the art of banter and hosted like no one else. All was accounted for, each detail a way for me to control life.
I never realized that perfectionism was an attempt to avoid all rejection, all criticism, and all failure. It was a matter of life or death.
Perfectionism saved me from drowning, but it didn’t help me to swim. I was treading water, staying safe, and desperately trying to control my reality, which is never truly possible. What I realized later was at the heart of perfectionism is the desire for love and acceptance.
Life is a practice and when we practice we make mistakes. The desire for love and acceptance are universal. There is no shame in mistakes, just an opportunity to learn and to grow.
No matter the root causes of your perfectionism or your desire for it, know that it is a desire for love and acceptance and there is another path to get there. Maybe your family only showed you love and attention when you did everything right. Or your boss only notices your work when you slave over every detail.
Maybe you feel the need to challenge yourself to be bigger and do better in your work and your relationships. This is not a bad thing. But there’s a difference between excellence and perfection.
The One Thing You Need to Know to Overcome Perfectionism
When we surrender to the moment, to change, to messiness or imperfection, we allow the seeds of excellence to grow. Excellence is that drive toward raising ourselves up to our own highest good thereby allowing our unique gifts, talents, and personalities to benefit the highest good of all.
Excellence, unlike perfectionism, is about lovingly pushing ourselves to act, think, relate, and create from the highest part of ourselves.
Perfectionism is about trying to control the outcome in order to receive love and acceptance. It’s all about fear. Surrender is about accepting where we are at in any moment, knowing that we are a work in progress.
Love and surrender gently tug us toward our own centers and ultimately to the center of the universe, which only knows love. Surrender also invites self-forgiveness, an act all perfectionists need to practice daily.
3 Tips to Manage Perfectionism
About anything. Do it often. Having a sense of humor about ourselves and our actions, especially embarrassing or disappointing experiences, doesn’t have to be a shield or form of protection. Humor can heal or at least create enough dopamine and endorphins to get us through the tough moments.
2. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Most of all, yourself.
Forgiveness is actually a selfish act. This is not a bad thing. Forgiveness releases us from fear-based thoughts and emotions. It is the gateway to surrendering our perception of control over our lives and over the actions of others.
3. Surround yourself by free spirits.
If you can’t find anyone like that in your circle of friends, then read about them or watch movies about dreamers and risk-takers—people who’ve failed or made huge mistakes only to overcome them and create an even better life than they could have imagined.
This is why mythology was used to help people transition from one phase of life to another in many cultures. There is power in story and identifying with a character who has gone through many trials and adventures only to re-emerge as the hero.
After thirty years of perfecting perfectionism, I’ve finally learned to let go of controlling every detail of my life. It’s scary sometimes, and there are days when I want to organize and reorganize my desk instead of facing what’s really bothering me.
But those difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging moments pass much quicker when I simply exhale and surrender to whatever is in my heart and in my mind. A softening occurs, and my body finally relaxes instead of being constantly braced for struggle.
I may still compare myself to that social media dynamo who effortlessly attracts a huge following on Facebook or avoid looking at myself as I pass a store window for fear of being disappointed by my reflection, but now I just smile and keep going, knowing that this too shall pass.