As a recovering perfectionist, I try to practice self-compassion as I stumble along the path of my life. Learning to do so has had repercussions beyond my imagining.
I was raised to believe that being a perfectionist meant you had high standards, both for yourself and for others. When other people (or I) didn’t meet my expectations, I was disappointed. I truly believed that there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do everything from loading the dishwasher to raising children. Naturally I tried very hard to do everything the “right way.”
Sounds like a winning strategy, right?
Turns out, it’s not.
Perfectionism is judgment, both of others and of ourselves. It leaves us feeling inadequate about our own ability to measure up, and makes us harsh critics of others who, though they are probably trying their best, may fail to meet our exacting standards.
In her book Rising Strong, author and researcher Brené Brown tells us that there is no perfectionism without shame. Brown says that underlying perfectionism is the belief that “I am not good enough, just the way I am.”
Perfectionism isn’t about having high standards; it’s about believing fundamentally that whatever we do isn’t enough.
We tell ourselves: I may not be smart enough, or pretty enough, or popular enough, but if I hustle and do really well I can prove to everybody that I’m worthy of their esteem. Everyone will be in awe of my accomplishments and then I’ll finally be good enough.
Problem is, no amount of accomplishment or praise from others can fill that hole. We all admire the one who hustles because we value hard work and achievement in our culture. And certainly we all want to do our best. But when we view ourselves through the lens of “I am not enough,” no amount of praise will ever convince us that we are – once and for all – good enough.
So how can we possibly undo the destructive and debilitating cycle?
not enough » “hustle to achieve” perfectionism » “come up short” judgment » failure
As I have seen in my own life, there are two ways to disrupt the cycle:
- Assume that others are trying their best. Again, Brené Brown tells us that the judgment of others’ shortcomings is often a reflection of what we see as our own limitations. As for me, I tend to make harsh assessments of those who are openly critical of others … all the while judging them silently for doing so. Choosing to see other people’s behavior with compassion rather than criticism goes a long way in granting us self-compassion.
- Recognize that we’re on a broken road. In short, perfection is impossible. We all know this intellectually, yet we still hold ourselves to an impossible ideal. As a recovering perfectionist I remind myself constantly that there is beauty in the struggle itself, not just in accomplishment. Recognizing that I’m walking on a broken road, that I am flawed and will therefore come up short time after time, is liberating. Now, rather than living in fear of failure, I reach for it. That’s where growth comes from.
As I apply this hard-learned lesson to my own weight loss journey I am struck by the enormity of what my decades of failure taught me. In fact, failure has been my greatest teacher.
Despite what we’re told, failure isn’t a bad thing; failure is preparation for success.
Acknowledging the brokenness – in ourselves, in each other, and in the journey that we’re on together – is where we find acceptance, compassion and grace.
PS: Speaking of broken roads, sometimes music speaks directly to our hearts, bypassing our overthinking minds. The words of this song “… Others who broke my heart, they were like Northern stars, pointing me on my way …” helped me understand that my past failures were a necessary part of my journey that pointed me in the direction I needed to go. Give it a listen and let me know what it says to you.