It’s Okay to be ME!
More often than I’d like to admit, something seemingly inconsequential will lead to a feeling of deep frustration, even shame. This is often accompanied by occasional voices like “How stupid!” and “You should have known better”. I was recently planting a tomato and I broke the main stem of this beautiful plant. I used the very words, “HOW STUPID, YOU CAN’T EVEN PLANT A TOMATO!” UH, I had already planted two. That’s the thing about perfectionism. It takes no prisoners. I’ve struggled with perfectionism and I’m far from alone. The tendency starts young – and it’s becoming more common.
The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential. And we don’t know the joy of imperfection.
Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career, relationships, and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.
But the drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a laundrylist of clinical issues: depression and anxiety, self-harm, binge-eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, hoarding, , chronic headaches, and, even early death and suicide.
Culturally, we often see perfectionism as a positive. Even saying you have perfectionistic tendencies can come off as a coy compliment to yourself.
Can a person have high standards, motivation and discipline without being a perfectionist? The answer is yes, unless your best never seems good enough and not meeting goals frustrates you. Doing your level best and knowing it, is good enough. Why should you beat yourself up for mistakes or feel like you can’t meet expectations?
Striving for excellence, isn’t actually being a perfectionist. I can have high standards, integrity, and clear goals without being a perfectionist. Perfectionism enters when that little voice surfaces, “you are not good enough.” That inner voice criticizes different things for different people – work, relationships, tidiness, fitness. Perfectionists can make smooth sailing into a storm, a brief ill wind into a category-five hurricane. And, because the ironies never end, the behaviors perfectionists adapt make them more likely to fail.
The trouble is that, for perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defense tactic to keep shame at bay: if you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.
Where is this increase in perfectionism coming from? When you keep in mind the idea that perfectionism stems from marrying your identity with your achievements, the question might become: where isn’t it coming from? After all, when you meet someone, the first question you ask is what they do for a living. Often our accomplishments or our job correlate to our ability to pay rent or put food on the table. Where we then signal our access to those resources with our appearance – these shoes, that physique – and other people weigh that, in turn, to see if we’re the right person for a job interview or dinner invitation, we just might set ourselves up for disappointment. Often this happens without any real knowledge of the true self emerging. And as a perfectionist, the main focus is on achievement and appearance.
What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. Perfection is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality, and often it leads to procrastination. There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. Aretha Franklin is my favorite female singer, but does that mean I can’t enjoy Barbara Streisand?
So, celebrate your imperfection. Look at yourself with a view of learning who and what you are. Then honestly accept what you find. You no longer need to be smartest or the dumbest or any other “est.” Its okay to be you. The perfect human being is so because of their imperfections.