Perfectionism: The Grand Illusion

Wherever perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun. Perfectionism is not about healthy striving, which you see all the time in successful leaders, it’s not about trying to set goals and being the best we can be, perfectionism is basically a cognitive behavioral process that says if I look perfect, work perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid shame, ridicule, and criticism. It’s a defense mechanism.
— Brene Brown

I'm not exactly sure when my safe world was rocked by the realization that my life wasn't going perfectly, but I do remember the day I hit rock bottom.

For several months my life had slowly been spinning out of control -- and I was helplessly watching it get worse and worse. I had worked for years to do everything right, to be perfect, but it was a grand illusion. A joke. All my worst fears were happening right before my eyes and there seemed nothing I could do to stop them.

I had lived under the false belief that if I did it all perfectly, everything would all work out perfectly. I hadn't yet learned that attempting to control my world would not lead to perfection, it would lead to disappointment, helplessness and eventually a deep sadness. It didn't help me escape the shame, ridicule or criticism I so despised either, no matter how much additional effort I applied to doing it right.

Worse yet I was attempting to do it all perfectly with an expectation-- an if... then kind of a thing. Always pinning my happiness on some future thing meant that I never actually got to be happy or satisfied in the moment, it was just a constant uphill battle that never arrived at perfect.

I thought that if I did everything right, beyond criticism, followed the rules, then... I would be accepted, appreciated, and loved for who I was. But that never really happened. The real me was hidden under so many layers of thinking I'm not good enough, even I didn't know who I was anymore. I was always looking ahead and striving to be more, to do it better, to be beyond reproach. That meant that any compliment I did receive was immediately negated by my mean voice, which never even allowed two seconds of time to take in the warm fuzzy feelings a compliment should bring. I was always three steps ahead and thinking about how I could have (should have) done it better. Or how I would get it 100% right next time.

My mean voice eventually graduated to pointing out flaws in things and people around me. Even that felt like rejection--I heard my mean voice giving up on me, as if I wasn't worth trying to "fix" anymore. I easily slipped into the persona of a glass half empty bitch.

Being able to see and sense my own flaws and imperfections made it natural to wait and watch for that same criticism from others. And if I was "right" about my wrongness, it gave my mean voice more fuel.

Deep down I think I knew I could never really be perfect, and yet that fervently remained my goal.

Giving my best effort should have been good enough. Perfection is the great illusion. To think otherwise, to live otherwise, indicates we are operating from an unhealthy place. My need for control, to be right and insulated from criticism caused my perfectionism to spill outward to everyone around me. It crossed boundaries into other people's space. It got ugly.

The worst part is that I could not get off the train. I could not let go, even though I knew that life would be so much easier if I just stopped trying to be perfect. On I plowed, so darn unhappy, so mean to myself, so scared that I would lose control and end up a failure --which in retrospect I kind of did anyway. Because there is nothing quite like an epic fail to grasp the lesson that nothing is ever perfect, even if it sometimes looks like it from the outside.

I know that I am "judged" a little every time I lead a yoga class, by someone like the 'me' I used to be. They will find flaws, mistakes, and truthfully so will I, only now I don't let them stop me from moving forward. When I forget the second side of a series of poses, or call out left when I mean right, or fall over--- I don't dwell on the mistake, I laugh it off. I make a joke.

I am finally able to recognize that I am human and I give myself a little grace. My best effort is all I really have, and that will have to be good enough. Even for me.

Related links: http://www.fastcompany.com/3026324/leadership-now/do-you-have-the-good-kind-of-perfectionism