Letting Go of Perfect

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February 21, 2011 by Beth Hess

During my focus on Self-Compassion this month, I’ve really had to work through my self-talk on being “stupid.” Stupid is my default word when I want to beat myself up about something I said or did that didn’t come off the way I wanted. Fear of “looking stupid” is my No. 1 reason for not really being myself sometimes. Stupid is my self-imposed measure of a perfection goal as if somehow “brilliant” people don’t have any worries.

Whatever the reason — or the word — I think it all comes back to battling the unattainable measure of perfection. And I’m really pretty sure I’m not the only one who fights that war. So I could really relate to this passage from The Gifts of Imperfection. (The bolding for emphasis is mine.)

* 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 (grade, 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 self-focused: 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. Life-paralysis refers to all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.

Here’s what I’m learning to tell myself when the “stupid” monster speaks up — imperfection is not failure; imperfection is reality. When I pretend to be anything less than a real person with real faults, it stunts my ability to learn and grow and make different choices in the future.

Besides, there is this amazing promise of God that puts it all in perspective: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

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