My Secret Shame: Perfectionism and Its Poisonous Fruit
Perfect piano scales. Perfect smiles. Perfectly dusted knickknacks. Perfectly balanced checkbooks.
Have we lost our souls striving for perfect?
I have no problems with excellence, experience, doing something WELL.
All together now: Full hearts, clear eyes, can’t lose!
I have big problems with perfect.
We know perfect doesn’t exist, right?
We know we made it up somewhere along the way and now we reject it, fight against it, and still struggle to live up to the false paradigm it creates.
It’s all LIES.
Built in the air, with ZERO existential scaffolding. Built up so that WE can believe a LIE.
We all know this.
And yet, we still believe it.
I still believe it.
This is where it gets REALLY personal for me.
My name is Trish and I’m a perfectionist.
I do treat it like an addiction. It IS an addiction.
Too many of us suffer from it, are wounded because of it, and have shut off too many lovely things as a result of it.
Most of my childhood was devoted to play, playing dress up, Legos, having tea parties, the usual stuff. It was so much fun!
As I grew older, the peer pressure got really intense. And it told me to be perfect. Perfect hair, clothes, friends, grades, even down to the right school bag.
Sure. Until I let it start to guide my soul.
It didn’t help that my family was becoming more religiously conservative and every action, word, and thought was subsequently placed through the ringer.
“But a lot of people grow up under strict family or cultural rules and are just fine.”
Maybe they are.
But I bet a lot more than we know struggle deeply in their heart and soul about whether or not they do things perfectly.
I bet a lot of us who grew up with this way could stand to loosen up a bit more. To let it go.
No, I’m not going to break into song here. I’ve never even seen Frozen.
It’s one thing to be raised with rules and to use them wisely, to use it for good. It’s another thing to use it to torture yourself until your back is metaphorically breaking under the pressure.
No human being is going to do it all correctly. No human being should be giving themselves a butt load of guilt because they did not do it correctly.
It’s like Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her book, EAT, PRAY, LOVE, how hard it was for her to meditate while in India. Her brain would just not shut off.
She is very vocal about why. Because she was kicking herself for not being perfect, for not doing it better, for not keeping up with the Joneses, for hurting people, for failing at things she couldn’t possibly do.
And sure, there are times when we need to feel guilt about these things, but shame?
Oh hell no.
If something is keeping me so amped up that I can’t take care of myself, it’s gotta go. I matter too!
But perfectionism teaches me that I do not matter, only what I do perfectly, matters.
So, now you know. This is my secret shame. This is what it all comes down to, for me, in my life.
The pursuit of perfect.
I carry it around like a yoke, bending me toward the ground. I spend too much of my waking moments thinking about what I’m not doing perfectly. In fact, I’m so worried I’m not perfect, I’ve discovered, that I spend time thinking through what I should have done, what I should have said, how should I have responded.
It’s like keeping track of a bunch of armchair quarterbacks.
“No, run it!”
“Throw it, you loser!”
“What is wrong with you? Run the damn ball!”
No wonder we’re so tired all the time. It’s a marathon trying to keep up with the voices in our head.
And the voice of perfectionism is so stinking loud and obnoxious. And other times, it’s cruel, vengeful, and bitter.
“Why didn’t you do that better?”
“Why did you make that mistake?”
“Can’t you do anything right?”
“You really are worthless, aren’t you?”
It makes my blood boil.
And at the same time, I believe every word of it.
Deep down in my secret soul.
I will march against this. I will wave banners. I will scream as loud as I can at this perfectionism.
But unlike real marchers (I am only marching in my head, mind you!), I still believe every single lie that perfectionism feeds me. I can yell and scream all I want, but I’m addicted to this. I need it.
So, what am I supposed to do?
What are we all supposed to do?
Quit playing so small.
What does that have to do with perfectionism?
Remember me? The perfectionist?
I took part in a book proposal boot camp about six months ago. Cool, right?
We took eight weeks to work through all the pieces of a book proposal and to post weekly assignments to a private boot camp forum. I was in the group with 25 other women, and all of us were working on proposals.
All was going swimmingly until I had to post a rough draft of a section of my proposal. In my head, I’m thinking rough draft. And I was working on not being such a perfectionist, so I threw up a very first drafty chunk of what I thought my proposal would be, what I thought my book would be, and waited for feedback.
I did not have the full details of what this boot camp was about. A lot of the boot camp members had well-thought-out proposals already in process (I was starting from scratch), and they posted these beautiful and well-written pieces that made my heart pound.
Perfectionism was rearing its old ugly head.
I kept at it though, and the next week, posted another very rough section of my book proposal, still thinking in my head, well, I’m starting from scratch, right?
This time, the writing posted by other members of the boot camp was even MORE beautiful. Like, they had been working on their project for YEARS.
And it wasn’t a case of false advertising. I was perfectly valid to post rough drafts. That was not the point.
I got challenged to revise. But I only could see the beautiful work by others. I couldn’t see how mine could ever be beautiful.
The point was that other people’s beautiful work in progress made my ugly work in progress look so much less than perfect.
It’s a common scenario, I think.
We perfectionists are walking right along, having an ordinary day, and someone one-ups us when we’re not expecting it.
Talk about stress.
I leaked vulnerability. I felt exposed, raw, and wounded.
I hate feeling like this. My perfectionist tendencies despise being surprised like this.
I want to be ahead of the game. I want to know what I’m getting into. I want to be prepared. Perfect.
Truth: I lost it.
Full on, backed up, told the boot camp leader that I needed to restructure the book proposal idea, and basically did not post any more writing for the rest of it.
In other words, I responded by playing small.
I am triggered so harshly by situations like this.
It seemed right and natural at the time.
Six months later, I know playing small was not the right choice.
Here I am again right now, not in a book proposal boot camp, but in more of a real-world boot camp, you might say.
Others are posting their progress and I’m triggered.
Rather than retrench and spend yet another six months nursing my wounds…
(I’m not really restructuring anything when I do this anyway; I am literally replaying everything over and over in my head, armchair quarterbacking my life rather than actually LIVING it)
…I’m going to try something new. I’m going to play BIG.
I will fall down. I have already so many times even today.
I will make mistakes. Yippee! I’ve got to get proud of my mistake moments.
It is a sign of playing big! Not making a mistake is a sign of playing small, remember.
You see, when we pay so much attention to the pursuit of perfectionism, we’re not actually expanding. We’re are shrinking to fit into our own perceptions of what perfect means. Or we’re shrinking down to fit into what other people consider to be acceptable. Not perfect. Acceptable.
That’s the other problem with our perceived ideas of perfectionism.
When we think we’re perfect, and look like it to others, we’re actually only conforming to them. And they are not perfect either.
Trust me. I’ve lived this for far too long. When someone calls me out ruthlessly and I’m drawn into a perfectionism loop (which is what it is), I would often notice a lack of perfect in that person’s life. I wasn’t judging. But it made me curious. If what I was doing was so vital, why didn’t it matter what they were doing?
I noticed this often in the lives of people who were freakishly tough on me. They oozed condescension at me, and then would quickly overlook GLARING errors in someone else.
I finally figured it out.
Some people are not born to be our friends on this planet.
“See ya in another life, brother.” (Yes, that was a tv show LOST reference.)
But what it really boiled down to was that I was under their CONTROL. Perfectionism TOWARD me was a control mechanism. I was being changed to fit someone else’s idea of acceptable.
Perfectionism TOWARD us is never actually about perfect. It’s all an illusion.
Perfectionism TOWARD ourselves is a side effect of other people’s control, but the core reason is because WE BELIEVE THEM.
We can fight against it, yell at it, rage against it, but if we still BELIEVE it, we’re not actually accomplishing anything.
If you have ever been looked down on, or treated as less than human, likely, someone was projecting onto you. Likely, they have never asked themselves why they do that.
This is not about them playing too small.
This is about US playing too small.
In the next few days you’re likely to experience a trigger event on social media, or in real life, and my challenge to you is this:
Am I going to quit playing small?
If you have a comment, or want to leave feedback, check in at the Facebook page.
If you’d like help creating more ideas you absolutely love, contact me about creative consulting services.