Hi lovely readers,
The title of this post is based on a quote by Brene Brown, and I truly find it inspirational. I am a perfectionist by nature, and striving for the best all the time is something ingrained in me by my family (which is not a criticism, by the way – they are all high achievers and want the best). I wakeup everyday with the notion that I should put 100% effort into everything I do. But sometimes, this simply isn’t attainable, and if you’re finding no outcome of your efforts is ever good enough, then I have some thoughts on perfectionism and how to overcome it to share with you.
Perfectionism in small doses can be very important. If you are a high achiever or aiming to become one, not giving things your all can be detrimental to your success. But my first question is this: Are the things you’re striving so hard for meaningful with respect to your values? And in the grand scheme of your life, will they be things you look back on and feel were worth painstaking sacrifice and effort? Evaluate what things in your life are worth applying your perfectionism to. Maybe your dream is to become a doctor and to ultimately help sick people, which would ultimately make you feel happy and fulfilled. Then perhaps it is okay for you to give yourself wholly to your med school education and eventually to your practice.
But are you a perfectionist in all aspects of your life? Typically, I am. I didn’t use to allow myself to let anything go, unless I was in a relapse (in which case I felt free from this desire to be ‘perfect’ – part of the reason I began using at all). If I cleaned my room it had to be spotless. Even if I wrote in my journal it had to be ‘well-written’. My body had to be perfect, which actually meant thin and unhealthy. If I did my makeup it had to be exactly as I’d seen it done on others and liked how it looked. I had to curl my hair everyday, and meticulously. I had to constantly edit and re-edit all of my schoolwork, even for classes I knew could be an easy A. I was especially uptight about this with things other people asked me to do, especially people of authority. Even in therapy I felt like I couldn’t be wholly honest, or that I had to, during the week, do everything my therapist asked of me perfectly, in order to be able to return with good outcomes to share. Having bipolar and substance use disorder by nature made me ‘imperfect’, in my mind, for a long time, and then once I came to terms with its permanence, I started applying my perfectionism to even things related to coping with my illnesses.
When I moved into my sober house they told me that the two people they worried about were those with a ton of ‘flags’ (basically written warnings regarding obligations that were not completed or missed), and those with none. Having none indicated that an individual was putting an immense pressure on themselves to be perfect. I came into the house striving to be that person with no flags, and now I get one every few weeks, simply because I go through periods of intense fatigue and a resulting forgetfulness, and because, well, sometimes, I need to take the flag for the ability to do some self-care. And that’s okay. Ultimately it goes back to the question of, when I look back on my life, will it matter? Is it actively hurting anyone else to not do something expending all of my effort a few times? No and no. Will being as thin as possible so I feel I look perfect bring me joy? Maybe for that brief moment I look in the mirror and feel somewhat satisfied, but that’s a rare occurrence when you’re in an eating disorder, and ultimately the hunger, fatigue and general sickness feels so much worse than that satisfaction feels good. Will my room being spotless, all the time, really make me feel like I have my life together? No. Sometimes it makes me feel like I have a comfortable space to work in, but there are levels.
When I say levels, I’m referring to the “good enough-ism” that Mrs. Brown is referring to. Doing your best in all aspects of your life is not a bad thing, but we need to evaluate what our best really is at any given point during the day, and what level of effort is really required for a task’s completion in order for it to be satisfactory for us. That requires an adjustment in thinking in terms of how we can become satisfied with ourselves. It takes self-compassion and acceptance to say “I am still a good human being and worthy of good things even though I had to postpone doing laundry until tomorrow”. At it’s core, perfectionism is a response to a lack of unconditional self-love. People who love themselves, or at least accept themselves, do not feel self-disgust or hatred when they cannot, or even choose not to get something done or to complete it to the maximum of their capabilities. They know that at their core that is not what makes them deserving of happiness and love. They know what matters to them in terms of creating a happy, healthy, and long life, and they apply that system of levels to different tasks, because internally they are not made complete by seeking perfection.
So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? There is no clear answer. What I have found most beneficial is to do that evaluation constantly of levels of importance to me and effort required, and then to jump right into trying to expend more or less energy where I see fit. Then when the self-doubt and shame and disgust comes towards myself for not meeting my own absurdly high expectations, I do the self-care practices that foster self-love for me, including writing my daily affirmations, physically taking care of myself and resting, expressing my frustrations and feelings with therapists, friends, and family, and doing anything else that feels like I am truly giving myself the love and care I hope to give those who hold a special place in my heart. But sometimes, I have to start with the self-love practices before I can cut down on the number of things I apply mental pressure to myself regarding. It’s something you have to feel out.
You are worth more than the sum of your achievements, and I can promise that the happiness gleamed from looking in the mirror at the end of the day and being okay with just knowing you’re a decent human being, full of love to use for oneself and to share with others, is so much more rewarding and long-lasting than the temporary satisfaction of doing anything ‘perfectly’. And lastly I’d like to remind you that perfection is subjective, and doesn’t really exist in any form, so finding other ways to feel whole is crucial to a joyful and vibrant life. This is all still a work in progress for me, but I look forward to a slow progressive journey.
Lots of love,