The Gifts of Imperfection
By Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.
Letting Go of Perfectionism
The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. ~ Anna Quindlen
Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.
We don’t claim shame. You can’t believe how many times I’ve heard that! I know shame is a daunting word. The problem is that when we don’t claim shame, it claims us. And one of the ways it sneaks into our lives is through perfectionism.
As a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist, I’ve found it extremely helpful to bust some of the myths about perfectionism so that we can develop a definition that accurately captures what it is and what it does to our lives.
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is selffocused— How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?
Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.2 Lifeparalysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.
I put these three insights together to craft a definition of perfectionism (because you know how much I love to get words wrapped around my struggles!). It’s long, but man has it helped me! It’s also the “most requested” definition on my blog.
- Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.
- Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable—there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.
- Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. So rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.
- Feeling shamed, judged, and blamed (and the fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience. Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because “I’m not good enough.”
To overcome perfectionism, we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities to the universal experiences of shame, judgment, and blame; develop shame resilience; and practice self-compassion. When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections. It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection.
Based on my data, I don’t think that some people are perfectionists and others are not. I think perfectionism exists along a continuum. We all have some perfectionistic tendencies. For some, perfectionism may only emerge when they’re feeling particularly vulnerable. For others,
perfectionism can be compulsive, chronic, and debilitating, similar to addiction.
I’ve started to work on my perfectionism, one messy piece at a time. In doing so, I finally understand (in my bones) the difference between perfectionism and healthy achieving. Exploring our fears and changing our self-talk are two critical steps in overcoming perfectionism.
Here’s my example: Like most women, I struggle with body image, self-confidence, and the always-complicated relationship between food and emotions. Here’s the difference between perfectionism diets and healthy goals.
Perfectionism self-talk: “Ugh. Nothing fits. I’m fat and ugly. I’m ashamed of how I look. I need to be different than I am right now to be worthy of love and belonging.”
Healthy-striving self-talk: “I want this for me. I want to feel better and be healthier. The scale doesn’t dictate if I’m loved and accepted. If I believe that I’m worthy of love and respect now, I will invite courage, compassion, and connection into my life. I want to figure this out for me. I can do this.”
For me, the results of this shift were life changing. Perfectionism didn’t lead to results. It led to peanut butter.
I’ve also had to rely on the old “fake it ’til you make it” a few times. I think of it as practicing imperfection. For example, right after I started working on this definition, some friends dropped by our house. My then nine-year-old daughter, Ellen, shouted, “Mom! Don and Julie are at the door!” Our house was trashed, and I could tell by the sound of Ellen’s voice that she was thinking, Oh no! Mom’s going to freak.
I said, “Just a second,” as I hurried to get dressed. She ran back to my room and said, “Do you want me to help pick up?”
I said, “No, I’m just getting dressed. I’m so glad they’re here. What a nice surprise! Who cares about the house!” Then I put myself in a Serenity Prayer trance.
So, if we want to live and love with our whole hearts, how do we keep perfectionism from sabotaging our efforts? When I interviewed women and men who were engaging with the world from a place of authenticity and worthiness, I realized that they had a lot in common regarding perfectionism.
First, they spoke about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, and without shame and fear. Second, they were slow to judge themselves and others. They appeared to operate from a place of “We’re all doing the best we can.” Their courage, compassion, and connection seemed rooted in the way they treated themselves. I wasn’t quite sure how to capture these attributes, but I assumed that they were separate qualities. That is until two years ago, when I found Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. Let’s explore the concept of self-compassion and why it’s essential to practicing authenticity and embracing imperfection.
Dr. Kristin Neff is a researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She runs the Self-Compassion Research Lab, where she studies how we develop and practice self-compassion. According to Neff, selfcompassion has three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
One of the many things that I love about Dr. Neff ’s work is her definition of mindfulness. Many of us think that being mindful means not avoiding painful emotions. Her definition reminds us that mindfulness also means not over-identifying with or exaggerating our feelings. I think that’s key for those of us who struggle with perfectionism.
Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, we infect our workplace with impossible expectations, and it’s suffocating for our friends and families. Thankfully, compassion also spreads quickly. When we’re kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion that we can extend to others. Our children learn how to be self-compassionate by watching us, and the people around us feel free to be authentic and connected.
DIG Deep: Get deliberate, get inspired and get going!
Each day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be. We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we'd no longer feel inadequate. So most of us perform, please, and perfect, all the while thinking, What if I can't keep all of these balls in the air? Why isn't everyone else working harder and living up to my expectations? What will people think if I fail or give up? When can I stop proving myself?
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, Ph.D., a leading expert on shame, authenticity and belonging, shares what she's learned from a decade of research on the power of Wholehearted Living, a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness.
In her ten guideposts, Brown engages our minds, hearts, and spirits as she explores how we can cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough, And to go to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am sometimes afraid, but I am also brave. And, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable, but that doesn't change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.
Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., is a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where she studies how shame affects the way people live, love, parent, work, and build relationships. A dynamic public speaker, she frequently presents on the topic of shame resilience at conferences and public events. Visit her popular blog ordinarycourage.com to learn more.