Perfectionism can be difficult.
While on the healthy side, it can push us to excel, enhance our work ethic, and convey that we care, it can also easily tip over to the unhealthy side, causing us to feel “never good enough”, anxious, or ashamed. Being somewhat of a perfectionist myself, I can relate to the good and the bad aspects of the trait — so it is important to figure out a way to keep perfectionism in check and not let it get in the way of our happiness.
I was born with a perfectionistic nature — wanting to excel or be the “best” at everything I tried. Fortunately, I was born a selective perfectionist: some things mattered more (perfect grades, excelling at sports and extracurriculars, being there for my friends), while others mattered less (how tidy my bedroom was, my fashion sense… ) Nonetheless, I often strived to be “perfect”. Sometimes it helped me excel and gave me pride, and other times it caused me lots of stress, but fortunately it never swayed too far in an unhealthy direction during my youth.
After college, though, I started to let my perfectionist tendencies get the best of me when it came to my work. I started to work a lot of overtime because I felt pressure to do a “perfect” job, and I stopped focusing on myself and my personal happiness enough. But like any job, my job was busy, and there was always more to do — so it became an endless cycle.
Eventually, I tried to draw a line, and I started to focus a lot on the idea of keeping a healthy work / life balance. But before I knew it, I was striving to be “perfect” at that, too! I remember my friend Jessica noting the irony to me one day. “I feel like now you are trying to be perfect about not being perfect”, she said. How’s that for meta?
But she was right. I couldn’t let go of this idea that being perfect at something was the key to happiness, that striving to be 100% in control equated to less stress.
Since then, I’ve been trying hard to let go of that idea.
In one of my favorite TED Talks by Brené Brown, (<— definitely watch it if you have 20 minutes to spare!), she talks about leaning into vulnerability. According to Brown, vulnerability is the core of shame, fear, and our struggle for worthiness, but it’s also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love. For me, imperfection makes me feel vulnerable. Perfectionism is my way of keeping up my defenses.
Towards the end of her talk, Brown talks about parenting, and how it’s impossible to control everything in our children’s lives. “Our job is not to say: “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect,” says Brown. “Our job is to look and say: “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
Looking at it this way made me realize: Perfectionism isn’t the key to controlling everything, and it’s certainly not the key to happiness. But maybe PRIORITIZING has something to do with it?
I will always be a perfectionist — that’s how I was born. It’s in my nature. It’s silly, and usually pretty fruitless, to try to change the way you naturally are. But I don’t always have to prioritize perfectionism. Instead of focusing on achieving perfection, I can focus on things that make me feel worthy of love and belonging. I can prioritize things that give me purpose. I can engage with things that make me feel grateful. And if I live my life like this, I can feel fulfilled in a different way, and I can appreciate my weaknesses and my imperfections as things that I embraced to make room for better things.
As I thought about writing this article, I searched a little bit online to see what others have had to say about embracing imperfection. I was fascinated to learn about a Japanese world view called Wabi-sabi, which centers around the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Reading about this philosophy reminded me a lot of what Pema Chödrön says about embracing groundlessness in her book, Living Beautifully. (Read my book review here to dig more into Chödrön’s ideas!)
The more I sit with this idea, the more I like it and want to try to live this way. I will never be able to control everything, and I will never be perfect, no matter how hard I try. But, if I shift my focus away from perfectionism towards embracing groundlessness, it will give me more room to focus on doing things that REALLY make me happy. If I embrace imperfection, I’ll have that much extra energy and focus left over to put towards doing more good in this life.
We are flawed, we are vulnerable, we are messy, and that’s what makes us worthy of love.