Perfectly Human: Evading The Trap of Perfectionism
The word “perfect” is a superlative. When it’s not being used to describe the ultimate in sophisticated cocktails— the Perfect Manhattan, it translates to “second to none, ideal, flawless, impeccable, the ultimate”. As such, the word can never (another superlative) be used in reference to oneself. This is not a rule of grammar; it’s a survival technique. Since we humans cannot attain the state of perfection for more than a fleeting moment, if we think of “perfect” in reference to ourselves, by our very nature we come up short. The consequence is inevitably a self-imposed state of shame for not achieving the unachievable….a silly predicament to trap oneself in. Wouldn’t you agree?
Perfectionism is a condition that affects many of us, whether we know it or not. For instance, do you feel you keep coming up short? That you’re not enough? That your output could have invariably been better? Do you have a voice in your head that’s perpetually scolding you, finding fault with everything you do? I rest my case. And, you’re not alone.
Throughout this month, I invite you to reflect on how perfectionism seeps into your professional and personal lives. Self-awareness is essential in managing perfectionism, as we are each vulnerable to different biases. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to managing emotional wellbeing, but some small pivots can add up to BIG change. We’ll investigate some re-framings that have been effective with DRIVEN clients, and with me. I hope they serve as a launch pad for your evolution from perfectionism to embracing the liberating reality that you are Perfectly Human.
Read on to discover how perfectionism had a stranglehold on my life, and be inspired to Release your own.
All About Eve
Meet my inner critic, Eve (short for Evil). You may have read about her before. Eve used to be the background banter in my life, sometimes screaming so loudly I couldn’t even hear myself think. She was quick to point out every endeavor that “could have” or “should have” been better contrived, more impeccably planned, more aptly timed and more skillfully executed with superior outcomes. This sunk me into a perpetual state of self-loathing, fear, frustration, low self-esteem, and embarrassment. I was coming up short at every turn, and felt I was no longer in control. Anxiety silently intruded my thoughts, instinctually releasing cortisol to manage the perceived threat, and fogging my brain. I became psychologically short-sighted.
Fast forward two decades and I’m more agile at releasing my perfectionist tendencies. It feels pretty darned good! As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve learned to manage Eve, reining in her devious ways. Anxiety has subsided, yielding to greater clarity regarding the trap of perfectionism. It’s fascinating and satisfying to know that what I perceive as greater clarity has neuroscientific evidence to back it up. I’m not imagining things after all! I hope that my history with this struggle serves to help you in bypassing the emotional pain of perfectionism.
The Origins of Perfectionism
Everywhere we turn, we’re being told how we “should” be. You’re likely well-aware of the alluring marketing behind beauty and wealth, and it will probably not surprise you that according to a 2017 Harris Poll, “When most women look in the mirror, their first thought is that they need to lose weight, regardless of whether they need to or not.” How frustrating, but entirely predictable.
Body image, beauty, “youth” and standards of wealth are marketed slyly to our subconscious, perpetually. But many of us have another frontier to acknowledge and manage when it comes to perfectionism: our families and community experience including the implied expectations of others. What starts as pressure for good grades in school mutates to getting into the “perfect” college, and then transforms to pursuing the ideal career path. And it doesn’t stop there. Once on this path, many of us face the insecurity, second-guessing and paranoia associated with success, which doesn’t culminate unless we win each promotion and arrive in the corner office. Sound familiar?
The actions associated with our perfectionistic desire to achieve materialize as obsessing, constantly over-delivering, and a perpetual inner nagging to squeeze in “just one more task”. We might come to the state of perfectionism honestly, but make no mistake— perfectionism is SELF-IMPOSED.
Three Steps Toward Perfectly Human
A first step to managing this obsessive state is to recognize we are harder on ourselves than anyone else could ever be on us. Think about it: Would you ever utter the unthinkable words out loud that you say to yourself?
A second step is to embrace the notion that there is no roadmap to life success. Our journeys are unique to each of us. When you take ownership of your travels and consider your values, your needs, and what gives you satisfaction as your directional signals, you will shatter the illusion of what’s supposed to be and clear some space for what you want to attract into your life.
The third step towards being perfectly human is to embrace mistakes. Sounds absurd at first. I’ll explore this step in my follow-up article in the context of the workplace. But for now, get into the mindset by considering the pressures you put on yourself to be the perfect employee, boss, spouse and parent.
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