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The Imperfect Route to Authentic Living
Let's reimagine a recent experience where perfectionism took over, and uncover how your authentic self would like to handle things going forward.
Perfectionism is a trap, as I wrote last week. It can easily be mistaken as a noble pursuit, but it blocks us from honoring and developing our real selves. Striving to achieve a “perfect self” that can’t exist in the real world is not productive.
Instead it creates a constant sense of inadequacy and anxiety. The quest for perfection implies that there is an ideal standard we must meet, and any deviation from this standard is deemed a failure. This mindset can lead to a fear of failure, a reluctance to take risks, and a deep sense of self-criticism. Not to mention, harmful choices.
I’ll never forget the time one of my friends in college was violently ill. I urged her to go to the student health center, but she refused.
Why? Because she needed to study. She was far more concerned with whether or not she got on A on her economics exam the next day than whether or not she became dehydrated from throwing up five times an hour.
Did it actually matter that she get an A on this one test?
“Yes,” she moaned, “It matters because I might get an A minus in this course if I don’t get an A on this test.”
“And the problem is???” I myself was a straight A student, but I still felt an A minus was good enough.
“I’ve never gotten less than an A in any of my courses,” my friend wailed, tears leaking down her cheeks as she doubled over with a fresh bout of nausea. Maybe I was seeing things all wrong. Was I losing my competitive edge?
I had her lay down beside me in the hallway where we were doing homework outside our dorm rooms. She put her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. She was trembling and hot. As I watched her shake, I prayed for her as best I knew how. But I grew worried.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I fully understood her desire to achieve a perfect transcript. Ridiculous as it may seem, I genuinely wasn’t sure whether that should trump doing something more proactive about her physical state. Maybe the vomiting would pass soon and she could just get back to life. Or not… it had already been hours…
My friend started convulsing, and I began to ramble out loud as I panicked inside.
“Maybe grades don’t matter as much as they seem to,” I blabbered. “I mean, maybe they’re not really such a great measure of your best. There are a lot of ways to be amazing that have nothing to do with grades, right? You can go to student health services and even if you get an A minus you’ll still be basically perfect at a lot of other things…”
I was so lost.
“I want to go to a top law school,” my friend wailed. “I have to get a 4.0 GPA!”
“I still kinda think you should go to student health…”
Who was right? I didn’t know. I was deeply freaked out and not yet eighteen.
The Authentic Self
Living authentically means being true to oneself, acknowledging one's strengths and weaknesses, and embracing the messy, imperfect, and sometimes uncomfortably human aspects of our lives. It's about letting go of the need to conform to external standards.
My friend’s quest for the perfect GPA was her messy belief system playing out. My inability to get straight in my head about what we should do illuminates my own limited understanding.
She never did go to student health. She also kept throwing up well into the next day and missed her exam, which ultimately cost her a letter grade. And she was pale, low energy, and listless for weeks afterwards.
I felt guilty on all counts, certain I should have made her visit student health that night and convinced I hadn’t taken a strong enough stand. I didn’t acknowledge or give myself any grace about the fact that I’d been so confused I didn’t know which way to lean.
These were not our authentic selves in action. “Perfect student” was a mask we had each been taught to cultivate somewhere along the line, and our masked selves were in control, wreaking havoc in our lived experience.
If we do not embrace the imperfection in our lives, the bad grades, the need for more help than we want, the possible need for an IV drip when we’re puking our guts out for 24 hours, or the need for some compassionate intervention when we’re stuck… then we take actions that aren’t kind to ourselves.
We literally block ourselves from the care we need, like my friend did. Or we berate ourselves about our failures, like I did. Or we ignore lurking questions that might disrupt our perfectionistic worldview…
But if we can learn to love our whole, real, and imperfect selves we can create space for self-compassion and self-acceptance, thereby facilitating the discovery of our authentic being and the ability to choose self-supportive actions.
Beyond perfect, the true self is able to emerge, flawed and wonderful, messy and amazing, limited and insightful, achieving and failing, subject to the whole spectrum of feelings. That self is empathetic and human.
A Practice in Discovering Our Authentic, Imperfect Self
Why not prove to yourself there are opportunities in self acceptance and compassion?
Let’s try a simple self-exploration exercise. This exercise involves reflecting on a recent situation where you felt pressured to be perfect (whatever your definition may be), and writing down how you could have embraced your imperfections instead.
Step 1: Choose a Recent Situation: Select a specific situation or event in your life where you felt the need to be perfect or meet certain expectations.
What is your version of “getting perfect grades” today? It could be nailing a work-related project, being a social butterfly at a gathering, meeting a personal goal, or any situation that stands out to you.
For me, I recently had an experience where an old family friend who is my parents age was rude to me, and I felt pressured to respond with perfect composure, politeness, and sweetness.
Step 2: Recall Your Perfectionist Tendencies: Take a moment to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that arose during this situation.
Did you feel the pressure to perform a certain way?
Did you strive for flawlessness at the expense of your well-being?
I felt a lot of pressure to respond politely. The discomfort of this pressure remained just outside my field of awareness so that I went into autopilot, smiling and nodding even as this person’s words (and how they were introducing me to one of their friends) made me want to sink into the ground. My nearly subconscious response was grounded in an old pattern of people pleasing, so it makes sense that it came out with someone my parents age who I knew as a child. After the interaction, I was upset, mad at this person, and frustrated with myself and my response. I felt like I’d been put down and had all the biggest failures of my life aired out in front of a stranger, even as this person acted like they were so happy to see me and introduce me to their friend.
Step 3: Embrace Imperfection: Now, imagine an alternative scenario in which you fully embraced your imperfections.
What if you allowed yourself to be human, to make mistakes, and to learn from them? How would this change your approach to the situation?
Write down your thoughts and feelings as you explore this alternative perspective.
I could I have been impolite, downright rude, or simply blunt in return. I could have been messy and less than nice. I could have said, “How about I introduce myself, since it doesn’t seem like you know much about what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years.” Or I could have said, “The way this conversation is going is making me uncomfortable. I’d like to stop talking about me. Let’s talk about you.” Any of those statements would have been hard for me to say, but more importantly, to even think of them I would have needed to give myself the space to notice my internal response to the rudeness, rather than ignoring it. If I had, maybe I’d have considered why I didn’t like what was going on and what treatment I would like instead. Then I could have spoken up. That would have felt awesome.
Step 4: Recognize the Benefits: Consider the potential benefits of embracing imperfection in this situation.
In your imaginary scenario, did your new behavior open up new possibilities? Did it reduce your stress and anxiety? Did it lead to a more authentic and fulfilling experience?
Write down any insights or realizations you have.
In my situation, if I’d interrupted the rudeness and stood up for how I like to be interacted with, this would have reinforced my own power in the situation, as well as clarified to this person (for the first time) how they were impacting me. That would have felt really good. I probably would have walked away feeling more content with the interaction, rather than so disturbed. Instead of complaining later, “geez, that person is so annoying,” I might have instead been able to say, “next time we interact it might go better.”
Step 5: Apply the Lessons: Finally, think about how you can apply the lessons learned from this exercise to future situations in your life.
How can you let go of perfectionism and embrace imperfection to live more authentically?
What steps can you take to be kinder to yourself and others in the pursuit of your goals?
Knowing that I have the option to tune out when someone is rude, in order to tune inwards so that I can become mindfully aware of my experience, is the first key learning for me. The second lesson, is that once I have noticed what is happening (someone is upsetting me), I can identify what I need in the situation (a change in tone, behavior, treatment, or approach) and speak up about what is happening, how it is impacting me, and what I would prefer. This process will help prevent me from going into people pleasing on autopilot and set boundaries with people when needed.
Try the Imperfect Way
Embracing imperfection is not about settling for mediocrity; it's about releasing the unrealistic standards we often place on ourselves and laying the groundwork for transformational growth. By letting go of the need to be perfect, you can pave the way for greater joy, fulfillment, and development.
See if you can take lessons from this exercise into your next challenging situation, knowing it will bring you more into alignment with your authentic self and what you need to thrive.
Go be perfectly imperfect!
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