Perfectionism. It's Hurting Us, But How do We Break Free?

IMAGINE YOU ARE CLIMBING.

You have your goal in sight. You are headed to the highest point. You keep your eyes on your destination and push onward, ready for the feeling of accomplishment. When you reach that point, you look up to realize you’re not at the top. The peak in fact lies above and beyond what you could see. You are crest-fallen. You’re tired. It feels as though you have failed. It’s hard to celebrate what you’ve accomplished because there is so much more ahead you didn’t anticipate. You can see it now…but can you even be sure it’s the top you’re looking at? This, my friend, is the mountain of perfection.

The media is flooded with articles and images glorifying constant improvement -achieving the perfect body, the perfect relationship, the best sex, the most organized wardrobe, the highest paying job, flawless hair, etc. etc. This creates an atmosphere where there is pressure to be constantly scanning for flaws.

When I ask my clients why they are so hard on themselves, the response is usually, “If I’m not, I won’t succeed”

The truth is, if you think that you must constantly critique and improve yourself to prevent your flaws from taking over, you are likely to be unsatisfied, stressed out, exhausted, and feeling broken. On some level, many sense that perfection is elusive and subjective. It always seems to be out of reach. Once you reach a goal, a new one seems to emerge, as if it is a moving target.    

HOW Can WE DEFINE PERFECTION Anyway?

Many people associate the word “perfect” with success, acceptance, love, worthiness, and self confidence. In reality, it’s a social construct that’s marketed to us as something that will solve all of our problems. Frustratingly, it is ever changing, and expensive which sends the message that it’s reserved for those with privilege. But do any of us really agree on what perfection is? According to Google, this is the definition:

per·fec·tion [pərˈfekSH(ə)n/] (noun): the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects

I love this, because with this definition, the question then becomes not, “how to achieve perfection,” but “how to be as free as possible.”  

I’d like to offer this solution as an exit ramp off the never-ending climb towards perfection:

If you practice loving your flaws, you will free yourself from feeling imperfect. “Love my flaws,” you say? “I can’t! They are the problem. They are the barriers to perfection. They are the very things I need to banish, fix, erase, and overcome!”I disagree. That is a belief system that you have been taught to buy into. A paradigm that we have been encouraged to abide by because it keeps everything orderly and hierarchical.  

If you take a moment and ask yourself why your flaws are flaws, most of the time you will realize that it is simply because someone else told you they were and you believed them.

Occasionally it is because they truly get in the way of your happiness and wellbeing. The difficult pill to swallow is that we need to love EVEN those flaws. It’s true, acceptance, especially self-acceptance is really, really difficult, but the payoff is way greater than that which we get from criticism. Wes Angelozzi once said,

“Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform into the greatest, truest version of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered.”

The real magic is that oftentimes it is the very acceptance of “flaws” that makes them disappear. This is called the Paradoxical Theory of Change. It comes from Gestalt Therapy practices, which focus very much on the present moment. Fritz Perl introduced the concept and Arnold Beisser gave the theory its name.

“Briefly stated, it is that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” He goes on to explain, “Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is –to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of the change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.” You can read more about it here.

BUT WHY IS IT SO HARD TO FEEL PERFECT JUST AS YOU ARE?
MEET: THE INNER CRITIC

The inner critic is the voice inside of you, the part of your psyche that lets you know what you're doing wrong. It is usually familiar, sometimes so familiar that it is hard to differentiate from your own voice. It is the part of you that wants you to succeed and to belong.

Your inner critic wants to protect you from failure, but when it’s in overdrive, it elicits shame rather than encouragement, and halts growth.

Many people believe that you need to be hard on yourself in order to achieve greatness. It is logical to think that if you constantly critique yourself, you might be able to avoid making mistakes. The problem is, mistakes are inevitable. They are human nature and often signs of growth. If you treat mistakes like indications of failure you end up getting in the way of your personal growth. Imperfections are important. They are essential. 

HERE ARE SOME TIPS TO HELP YOU MEET YOUR IMPERFECTIONS WITH LOVE:

Step 1. Identify your inner critic: the inner critic begins to lose power the instant it is seen. Make a practice of calling it out in the moment and saying, “Hey, Ouch. That was harsh.” Watch what happens.

Step 2. Protect yourself from shame: When you identify your inner critic, respond! Create a protector voice. Think of this voice like a bodyguard for your tender heart and let it speak back to any harshness you experience.

Step 3. Try a different tone: Lisa M. Hayes once said, “Be careful what you say to yourself because you are listening.” Start to bring some awareness to how you speak to yourself. When your tone is harsh, see if you can access a softer one.

Step 4. Move into full-on celebration: when you come across a so-called flaw, look at it like an unexpected brush stroke in a work of art. Maybe it is meant to be there. Maybe it makes you more interesting. Maybe it has a function. Maybe you need it right now. Perhaps, you even love it.

Step 5. Nurture yourself and your uniqueness: Smother every part of yourself with love, especially the parts you struggle to accept, or have been taught don’t deserve love. Self-care is not selfish. It is hard work! Do more of what feels truly nurturing. Eat whole foods, drink water, sleep, take showers, move your body in ways that feel nice, give yourself a present, write your “flaws” a love letter.

Every time you find yourself climbing the mountain of perfection, striving, fixing, critiquing, invite yourself to shift gears. Treat yourself as though you are tending a plant. Take a moment to notice how much growing you’ve already done in your lifetime.

Practice asking yourself:


What can I give myself in this moment to allow my growth to happen in the most natural way possible?
Do I need space?
Do I need nourishment?
Support?
Attention?
Water?
Encouragement?
A new environment?
Do I need to remove something?
Or perhaps, do I just need time?

If you would like support with quieting your inner critic and creating a self-love dialogue, please reach out.

Emily Adams