I have a confession to make. Well, a few actually.
But first, I’ll start off by admitting that I’m a recovering perfectionist, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are too.
I floss every night. I check my grades every day. And I always, always remove the annoying crinkly shreds from the margins of my notebook paper (but that’s universal…right?). These might not seem like very detrimental rituals, and in reality, they aren’t; it’s not the act of perfecting but rather the mindset behind the acts which led me to the conclusion that something’s gotta give.
Because coloring inside the lines isn’t exactly life-affirming and playing it safe is anything but liberating.
There’s nothing wrong with our own unique quirks, habits, and individual preferences, but when these acts stand between us and the authentic life that we wish to cultivate, that’s when a mindset shift becomes necessary.
The process of unlearning the internalized belief that we must prove our worthiness in order to truly be worthy is a long, strenuous task and it doesn’t necessarily get easier–because perfectionism and meritocracy are ingrained in our society. But there are ways to make the process more bearable and to go about it with kindness, compassion, and care.
These are the confessions I’ve had to make in coming to terms with my own messy, flaw-filled humanity and the ways I’ve started to go about embracing it.
Confession #1: I actually don’t want to be perfect.
When I engage in perfectionistic tendencies, I do not genuinely seek to be perfect, because even I know that no matter how high I set the bar, at least sometimes, I will fall short.
Getting straight A’s is not the calling of my soul, and perfecting the art of French braiding does not ignite my passions. Rather, these are acts that come from fear of failure and rejection, not from love or care. We all want to be successful, prosperous, and content. We all want to achieve our goals and say we made it and ride off into a more-or-less metaphorical sunset, knowing that we did our best and gave our all.
But when faced with the reality that these things are completely dependent upon our day-to-day actions, it can seem daunting and intimidating to pursue our goals and dreams. In the effort to protect ourselves, we actually hurt ourselves by overly fixating on the smallest of human errors. This is where radical self-acceptance comes in.
Reflecting on the ways in which our perfectionism protects us is the first hurdle, but self-acceptance is another mountain that recovering perfectionists like myself need to tackle. By affirming our self-worth, embracing our imperfections, and facing our flaws, we can reclaim that which we were convinced was broken and instead acknowledge that we are already whole.
This can be done through journaling about our imperfections, noticing them without judgment, or even talking openly about them with a friend or family member. The more we embrace the parts of us we were once so reluctant to hold close, we will start to realize that our flaws and shortcomings, as well as the fear-based mindset behind them, are not unique and are actually quite universal parts of the human experience.
Confession #2: The pursuit of perfection is boring.
At the height of my perfectionistic tendencies, I would get numerous comments praising me for how good I was doing, but the reality was–I wasn’t.
In fact, I was having panic attacks almost daily and restlessly moving from one productive task to the next in an attempt to quell my fear of failure. And in the midst of that exhausting pursuit of perfection, I didn’t have any fun.
When I’m especially caught up in this vicious cycle, my body feels stuck in fight-or-flight and does not feel safe enough to rest, enjoy the process, or do the things that actually energize me and bring me joy. Which leads me to wonder, if it’s not for the purpose of enhancing my joy and well-being, then what’s the point of it all?
Addressing this issue requires a serious priority reassessment. I never thought putting homework on the back-burner for a night of self-care could be a reality for me, but lo and behold, I did it, and I survived (and yes, I still finished my homework).
At first, going against our habitual instinct to attack whatever is next on our to-do list and instead tend to something that our soul is really craving is extremely terrifying. But in the end, it comes down to which kind of life we want to live: the kind in which we can take part in what is truly and authentically nourishing for us or the kind in which we neglect our physical, mental, emotional, and social health?
The kind in which we engage in work that is meaningful to us from a place of passion and peace or from a place of shame, guilt, and fear? I’ll take the former options any day, even if they are harder, scarier, and unfortunately, more socially stigmatized.
Confession #3: The more perfect I try to be, the less perfect I feel.
Whenever I strive for more in every aspect of my life, I strengthen the belief that I have a lack that requires striving. There is nothing wrong with working towards goals or aspirations, but to constantly place unreachable standards before us while also insisting that it is reaching these standards that reaffirms our worthiness, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
I, for one, know that the ninety-five percent that was once satisfying suddenly feels inadequate when I aim for a ninety-eight, or that eight-minute-mile that was once my goal pace arbitrarily becomes not fast enough once I put pressure on myself to go faster. It is this incessant need to achieve that propels us perfectionists into what we initially see as success, but later determine is failure.
Dr. Kristin Neff hilariously explains in Self-Compassion that we have an aversion to being average–as if being mediocre and similar to others is an insult! We can always do better in our minds, but in the core of who we are, we are doing our best every single day by just getting out of bed and breathing, and doing the hard things that we doubt we can truly do.
Being a human being is hard, and we are all doing it the best we can.
By allowing our standards to be lower we are not only reaffirming our own humanity–we are reaffirming each others’. Treating life as a competition alienates us from ourselves and others and ultimately, perfection isn’t worth that kind of isolation. Rather than push further into perfection, we can celebrate our strengths, weaknesses, and areas where we’re average. Because yeah…being just okay is okay (revolutionary, I know)!
The road to recovery from perfectionism is one full of triumphs and terror. But with every pang of panic, every glint of hope, and every mindset shift, I get closer and closer to loosening the grip of a painful paradigm that whittles my worth down to success and superficiality.
I don’t want a life in which my goals are deliberately placed beyond my reach, a life in which I willingly step onto a treadmill of relentless competition with myself only to fall short. I want a life in which I’m allowed to fail, allowed to succeed, allowed to suck and fall and get back up again and then fall a few more times.
Because the best parts of my life aren’t the ones that are perfect, they’re the ones that are real.
If you’re a recovering perfectionist, you’re not alone–but we’re in this together. We are re-writing our stories and reclaiming our minds, one beautiful mistake at a time.