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Perfect is the enemy.
Get past perfectionism to find self acceptance, transformative growth, and joy.
Perfect is the enemy of good, they say. But I say, perfect is the enemy.
I spent years trying to be perfect. A perfect student, daughter, friend, employee, girlfriend, wife.
I spent so much energy trying to achieve the “perfect me” version of myself that I learned little about the me who was really there.
I thought perfect me was polite, perennially nice, always smiling, smart and capable, never tiring, a straight A student and an agreeable and hard working employee. She always had solutions and never problems.
She was thin, athletic and of course, easy breezy. She could host a dinner party on a dime and was a cool girlfriend, never needing anything from a man. Oh, and she was completely spiritual, so she could mind-over-matter her way to peace, regardless of what she was going through.
Trying to achieve this happy robot state led to lots of breakdowns, and many bad choices.
For instance, I was so out of touch with my own needs, and what actually might make me feel good, that I married someone who yelled more than he hugged, who drank a lot, and who freaked out over all kinds of unexpected things. Like when my toes accidentally touched his leg in our bed.
But I was perfect, so none of that affected me… right?
Wrong. I was deeply lonely during those years. I was also rarely my perfect self with this man, since striving to be the cool girl who didn’t need anything from him made me so brittle I wept easily, so jealous I snooped (and always found out his lies), and so insecure I wanted to control everything, which he, of course, completely hated, amplifying his bursts of frequent anger.
Striving for perfection, and breaking down internally as a result, was a pattern in many aspects of my life, even if few people realized what it was costing me. Lots of people told me that I lived a “charmed life,” that I was “remarkably calm in times of stress,” and that I “did everything well.”
But robot me was often miserable.
Striving for perfection didn’t allow space to enjoy being imperfect in the present moment. Striving to be “perfect me” blocked me from healthy choices that supported what my true self needed, which in turn curtailed my ability to actually show up happy, healthy, and whole.
So how do we get past perfect?
“Perfect” is purely subjective.
First we must recognize that “perfect” is a straw man— no substance, not real, just empty stalks of dried out grass filling up some old clothes in a hot, dusty field.
To get to the point where we see perfection for the empty thing that it is, we need to register that when we strive for “perfect,” none of us strives for the same thing. It’s a subjective measure. We each make up our own.
My version of perfect used to entail being perfectly sweet and perfectly agreeable and perfectly hard working. But for someone else, those things could seem lame. I mean, even today’s me thinks those are pretty shit ways to have defined perfection.
Someone else might think I was off base because obviously to be perfect is to be female, 5’8”, 125 pounds, blonde, and married to an NBA player.
Another may feel, deep down, that perfect means they must invent the next disruptive technology before age 40.
A third may know that perfect means minimizing all harm caused by their existence, whether to other people, animals, or the planet.
A fourth may be laughing right now, since perfect people follow every rule in their church.
Another may see perfection as a spiritual state that can’t be defined by any human measures.
A “perfect me” exists only in our heads, and is different for everyone.
Journal prompt: Explore your personal definition of “perfect you.” What personality traits, appearance, behaviors, accomplishments and strengths does this “perfect you” have? Has this view of perfection affected your behavior at any point? Did you strive to be more like that version of yourself even when it was hard? What outcomes has perfection striving behavior created in your life?
A Perfect Death
Once we see perfection as a subjective, empty thing, we can let go of our striving behaviors and mindsets and start to search for what’s real.
When we strive for and do not achieve our “perfect me” state, we may feel we have failed. And this kind of failure can feel like a piece of ourselves has died. We grieve. We berate ourselves. We may become depressed. The inner wail is real.
Why? Because we’ve been killing ourselves to achieve the impossible, and when we don’t, we know for sure that we are BAD.
We lose faith in ourselves. We lose trust in our self-control. We measure how we’re even less perfect than we thought.
We swing to the dark side: if I can’t be perfect, then I’m obviously the worst.
This is perfect death. It rejects who we are in such a way that it invalidates our lives.
Didn’t lose enough weight? You’re trash!
Didn’t get that early promotion? Clearly you have no value.
Couldn’t hack life without taking breaks from the endless toil? Worthless weakling!
Don’t destroy your love for who you are today, exactly as you are, including all your human needs and limits and imperfections and mistakes.
Instead consider a new mindset: I am already wonderful. I am not perfect and it’s completely great. I’m a mess and still awesome.
Journal prompt: Have you ever felt you were the worst because you couldn’t be the best? Have you ever said mean things to yourself when you failed to live up to your own high standards? What did you say? What would it feel like instead to celebrate your own current state, in all it’s messy, imperfect glory? What would you say to yourself then? What intention might you set for how to show up if you’re not going try for perfect?
Shift to Self Acceptance
Perfectionism is the enemy of self acceptance. So, our next challenge is to shift out of perfectionism and into greater awareness of who we are today, why we are already wonderful, and how to love all of ourselves.
As I’ve written in the past, self acceptance is about owning who we are and loving all of it, from the negatives to the positives. Any time you view a particular state as perfect, and feel the need to change yourself to achieve that state, you’re not engaging in self acceptance. You’re self rejecting.
The first time somebody told me outright, with blunt simplicity, “how you’re feeling right now is completely valid,” it came as a surprise. This kind of self acceptance was new to me.
I was complaining to my HR leader about my manager. Micromanagement was so rampant it seemed intentionally mean spirited. My peers were quitting. I was irate. I was in the HR office that day because I was at wits end, struggling to ride this out the way I thought I should: politely and without revealing my inner turmoil to my manager. I hoped maybe HR could step in and do something. I had no idea what.
“It’s clear why you’re angry,” our HR leader said. “And it makes sense.”
This pulled me up short. My heart felt like it was going to burst. It was okay to be angry? How freeing! Some of the pent up energy in my body released and my arms relaxed into my chair.
Journal prompt: based on your definition of “perfect you,” what might greater self acceptance look? What would you let go of? What would you start to accept? How different would it feel if you could love that part of you?
For me, I had to accept that I didn’t need to be always “nice” and “pleasant” and “happy and smiling.” I had to allow space for my difficult feelings and even learn to embrace them.
If your “perfect me” achieves greatness constantly and is the best at everything they do, what if you could accept the real life parts of yourself that don’t achieve? Can you give that side of yourself some empathy? Try loving all of you, exactly as you are now.
If your “perfect me” does no harm to animals, others, and the earth, could you become more accepting of the ripple effects your real, imperfect existence causes? Could you accept the parts of yourself that must consume, take, receive and use? Might you embrace how much you deserve to be here?
If your “perfect me” is a spiritual being, can you accept the parts of yourself that aren’t spiritual? Could you embrace the parts of yourself that are material and limited? Might there be some gifts in loving your humanity?
Shift to Transformative Growth
Now that you’re practicing self acceptance, you’ve set the stage for authentic growth.
Perfectionism is the enemy of growth. It may seem as if striving for perfection is the way to get better, stronger, and achieve more. It’s not. That’s because perfectionism comes with some big baggage that blocks the doorways we need to go through in order to grow.
To grow in a healthy, lasting way requires a shift from perfection striving to growing gently and lovingly. This requires opening up the possibility of a change in beliefs, attitudes, responses, and the meanings we make. It means creating the conditions for transformation within ourselves.
The Buddist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When our hearts are small… we can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand… we accept others as they are, and then they have the chance to transform.”
What if we applied that idea to ourselves? What if we expanded our hearts to accept and tolerate our own shortcomings so we can give ourselves the chance to transform?
On a psychological level this works because of how we treat what we cannot change. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard behavioral scientist who studies acceptance, has identified a critical component of the growth process: the inescapability trigger.
Once you accept something as immutable reality, you gain permission to stop wishing it away or trying to fix it. Instead you can direct your energy toward moving forward. You can stop focusing on Point A and get going in the direction of Point B.
When we accept the impossibility of perfection, we gain the chance to grow towards the best version of our real self, which will always include darkness and light, flaws and wonderfulness, strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs.
One of my favorite ways to describe how we move forward this way is what Brene Brown calls “The Rumble” and “The Revolution.”
The Rumble is when we grapple with our own story. In the rumble, we don’t shy away from our imperfect reality. We embrace it, and take responsibility for our own narrative and experiences. This means being accountable for our thoughts, feelings, and actions in a given situation.
This process requires exploring our experience, even the imperfect parts. If we reject aspects of what our bodies sense, our emotions, our thoughts, or our spiritual side, we cannot fully investigate or understand those parts of us. But when we are open and authentic about our feelings and experiences, we become powerful and vulnerable at once.
When I complained to my HR leader about my manager, I was blown away when he validated my anger. “Wow,” I thought, “I actually have some space to be heard!”
So I opened up a bit more, sharing my conclusion that my manager was a horrible person, completely without empathy, a bit vindictive, and definitely controlling and mean.
“How do you know this is the reason behind your manager’s behavior?” our HR leader asked me. I sat in silence, stumped. I felt completely exposed and vulnerable, as if I had just been caught out making a giant mistake. But my perspective was shifting so fast that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing as the joy of revelation opened up my mind.
Now that I was able to own up to my feelings, I was also able to explore further into my mind and see that there was a gap between my feelings and my conclusions. And in that gap lived multiple possible truths.
Brene Brown defines The Revolution as the process by which we re-write our own narratives. Where we make meaning of our experience and choose a more empowering story so we can move forward. This is a process of integrating our experience and what it means to us, choosing what we keep, and what we wish to transform.
Contemplating that maybe my manager’s horrible personality wasn’t the only reason for the micromanagement led me to apply some empathy to the situation. Maybe it was their fear or stress. Maybe it was a lack of awareness. Maybe it was a need for new kinds of communication on our team. Maybe it wasn’t that the person I worked beside had the personality of hot sauce over burnt toast.
My HR leader waited patiently as I processed these ideas.
“Okay, I need to think more about this and figure out what to do next,” I finally said.
“That’s great. You’re in a good position to positively impact your team,” he answered. “Your anger makes sense given how you’re being treated and you have every right to ask for change. As you explore your options, you can always come back to talk more.”
I left with a very different viewpoint than I’d come into his office with. Suddenly I wasn’t the victim of a bad actor. I was an empowered actor of my own, capable of thinking through the narrative and choosing my next steps more deliberately.
This gave me a new focus: rather than trying to figure out how live up to what “perfect me” would do in the face of poor treatment (smile, chin up, let it roll off my back), I instead sought to find a way to raise my concerns with my manager and ask for change. When I finally did, I discovered that they had been blind to the experience of those on the team and were more than willing to try new ways of working. Eventually we hit a new stride.
Striving for perfect feelings had blocked transformative inquiry until my HR leader gave me permission to feel my negative feelings. Then he gave me space to rumble: to explore the gap between feelings and facts, which was filled by my thoughts and conclusions. As I explored this space, I came to see myself in a new light.
This was my revolution: re-writing my story as someone with both hard feelings and the empowering ability to take mindful action based on those feelings. This opened up the opportunity for positive change in my relationship with my manager. I didn’t have to be happy or pleasant to achieve this. I needed to be angry and let myself learn all about my anger and its source, in order to find a genuinely constructive way forward.
Acceptance plus ownership, inquiry, and empathy create the conditions for change. Taking action as a result of this kind of transformative growth is deeply empowering and tends to solve problems at the root.
Journal prompt: What part of your experience might you need to fully explore through “The Rumble?” What possibilities exist in the space between your feelings and your conclusions? What parts of your story would you like to re-write in “The Revolution?” What do you choose to keep and what do you choose to transform? What actions might this suggest?
Shift into Joy
Perfect is the enemy of joy.
I was learning, as coaching and marketing leader Simone Grace Seol calls it, to “Normalize being normal.”
Normal is messy and imperfect. Normal makes mistakes. Normal gets mad. Normal needs rest.
The more I had focused on being “perfect me,” the less I was okay with normalcy. When I did start to own my full, normal, human experience, I began to feel a lot better a lot more of the time.
Owning my imperfect feelings, like anger, sadness, hurt, embarrassment and beyond, taught me that it was fine not to be constantly pleasant, smiling and happy. My definition of “perfect me” started to dissolve.
I became more comfortable owning up to things I needed or wanted, and asking for them. I cared a lot less about whether or not I thought any of it was the “right way to be.” I was the way I was, and I was starting to be fine with that. Or maybe more than fine: maybe I was loving it.
Soon it no longer seemed reasonable to stay in a marriage where I was frequently treated in ways that hurt. We tried couple’s therapy, but it became clear there was no way to end the hurt (in both directions) so long as we stayed together.
When I let go of trying to make that relationship work, I finally allowed that I couldn’t ever be the “perfect cool girl” in a relationship. In turn, this let me acknowledge that I needed softness and support. It let me own up to the fact that I wanted someone I trusted, whose emotions were not volatile, and who I didn’t walk on eggshells around. It let me decide with great clarity that until I found someone like that, I would create my own softness, support, acceptance, comfort, and love, however challenging that might be at times.
And there, waiting for me in this choice to let go of “perfect me” and honor my human needs instead, was a much more joyful existence with a lot less pain and a lot more empowerment.
Journal prompt: What is painful in your life today? Is there a gap between how you think you should be handling this and how you’re actually showing up? What might this tell you about what you really need? How could you take action to bring more of that into your life?
Releasing Perfect, Embracing My Real Self
I finally knew, deep within, that I didn’t need to be perfect. I was allowed to be me. Perfectly imperfect.
I could want stuff… and ask for it.
I could tell someone they were being rude if they were being rude… and I could avoid being rude in return so long as I didn’t let myself reach a breaking point before speaking up.
I could need more than someone could give me… and I could walk away from that someone to search for what I needed elsewhere.
I discovered self-compassion. I practiced acceptance. I learned to manage up. I got divorced. I learned hard lessons in dating but managed not to settle again. I started getting more promotions at work. It was like I’d been unleashed when I started to live on my own terms.
Now I know we can be messy and still whole. We can be integrated beings of darkness and light, sadness and joy, hardship and victory, regret and hope, rage and mindful response. We can struggle and still be good. We can be imperfect and amazing.
Today I’m sending all my love to your imperfections.
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