Recognizing Perfection – and Letting Go

Recognizing Perfection – and Letting Go

Ever find yourself obsessively fine tuning a report at the expense of other priorities you need to take care of? Or spending countless painful hours attending to the most minute details before friends arrive for dinner? Or perhaps fixing some aspect of your work, home or appearance as though your life depended on it?

Its perfection at play – an adaptive behavior that has subtle but deep roots in low self-worth. We try and “fix” our external worlds in order to make up for a deep inner failing – a sense of being incompetent, unworthy, unlovable in some way – if not for our “success” in this particular area.

For women, studies show that self-worth is often contingent upon other people’s approval, the support of our family, academic success, competition and/or appearance. And there are very real biological and societal reasons this is so.

For one, we are far more relational than men – the mind-maps we make of ourselves are intricately entwined with those of the others in our lives. Which is why we are higher in empathy and compassion – but then we’re also more affected by other people’s remarks and judge ourselves through other people’s achievements and evaluations.

We also have long been held to higher standards – of beauty and of performance. The external messages we receive from our earliest years embed themselves in our beliefs, feed the coffers of the cosmetic industry and wreck havoc in our minds. We starve to have the perfect body, strive to achieve the perfect report card, struggle to be the perfect employee – with no upper limit on what perfection means. Moments of “success” are fleeting – more often than not, we end up beating down on ourselves for failing to reach our mirage.

Add to that the fact that we’re biologically more prone to rumination and to hanging onto the negatives in our lives. Our apparent failures are writ large in our minds and we ruminate about them for hours. Our only consolation lies in raising the bar even higher and promising to do better next time. And the next time and the next…

Breaking free from this cycle does not mean producing substandard work or becoming lesser versions of who we can be. It means choosing excellence instead – the authentic desire to grow, learn, and change for the better. And although perfection and excellence can sound like a play on the same idea, they are profoundly different.

Excellence resides in the higher cortex – the meaning making brain that spins the story of our lives. When we’re grounded in a genuine sense and appreciation of who we are, we form life goals that are realistic and long-term. It is then that we can appreciate the flow of life, learn from failures, and take the steps that lead to growth and upward spirals of flourishing.

Perfection, on the other hand, lives in the emotional brain – the efforts of a threatened mind to prove its worth. Lacking authentic self-worth, we seek it through whatever family demands and external forces we grow up with. Our self-worth becomes contingent upon that one (or few) areas which we hang on to, to safeguard our fragile sense of self-worth. No wonder, we live limited lives, sometimes on the verge of depression and other psychological disorders.

What are we to do?

Practice Self-compassion

Be kind to yourself and recognize that your true worth lies in being human and being courageous enough to show up in life every day and do your best despite your struggles and failings. Adam Smith wrote: “We’re flawed. Recognizing our flaws is the beginning of wisdom.” He certainly was wise!

Focus On Others

Shift your focus from an “ego-system” to an “eco-system” says psychologist Jennifer Crocker. Forget appearing awesome. Think of the difference you can make to others by what you do. And then focus on what is working and what you can change for the better.

See the Bigger Picture

Putting things into perspective allows you to set “good enough” goals. Instead of wasting time making inconsequential changes, you can appreciate what you’ve achieved so far, focus on learning, and plan on taking effective steps that move you in the direction of your goals.

Talk to Others

You’ll be surprised by what you find. Psychologist Kristen Neff says that part of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity. We all grow up with less than ideal self-worth. We all struggle to feel secure. Knowing this helps in taking off the mask we hide behind, and freeing ourselves to be what we can be.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a beautiful way of recognizing that there is no perfect path – no perfect breath, no perfect thought, no perfect outcome. The best we can do is recognize when we falter, because we’re human, and gently bring ourselves back on track again.

Life is like that, too. When we let go of grasping too tightly, when we hold life a little lightly, we allow ourselves to unfold and become who we are. Now isn’t that far more breathtaking than the predictability of perfection?

I’d love to hear from you! Do you struggle with perfection? And if you do, what has worked for you –and what hasn’t?

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10 thoughts on “Recognizing Perfection – and Letting Go”

  1. I truly appreciate this piece on “perfection”. I am recently divorced as I was married to a man who was raised with “shame-based behavior” where one had to be perfect, right, and helpful. Our marriage basically dissolved, in the later years of our marriage, because he tried to change me, in the guise of being helpful, and his need to be perfect. We were married for 36 years and he decided he wanted to be single again. I am now free to be me, living without his need to change me to what he thought I should be…..perfect.
    I am saving this piece to savor and reread in support of my own self-worth.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Judy – that’s unfortunate, but I’m so happy you can finally be you. Yes, shame based behaviours go back to the way we’re raised and don’t go away on their own. His need to be perfect obviously destroyed your marriage because he needed you to become whole and couldn’t appreciate you for what you are. I’m cheering you all the way in your efforts at building, loving and appreciating yourself from within!

  2. Hello, I am a guy from Nicaragua, marry and have four children, It seems that your primary clients are women however I really like your themes, the way you elaborate them and I try to practice and cultivate your recommendations or advices.
    Be well

    1. Hi Juan! I’m truly touched! Yes, my clients are women, but my blogs are generally universally applicable. I’m really happy that you find them useful and hope you’ll continue to benefit from them. Take care and hats off to your desire to continually work on yourself!

  3. I hold perfection close, but lately remind myself I am human, therefore I am gonna have imperfections. I have to learn not to be so hard on myself.

    1. Jamie, I’m glad you’re learning not to be hard on yourself. Self-compassion can go a long way in helping you love and accept yourself for both your light and your darkness. That is how we become whole. All the best! If you don’t find a self-compassion meditation audio you like, let me know and I’ll send you a research based one that I particularly like.

  4. I am on a self journey and have been for some time. I have recently found (while excavating this anxiety ridden disaster I have a tendency to be) that I have serious issues with setting boundaries for my own sake and often allow my husband to pressure me into doing things for him and others that infringe on my healthy boundaries. I am working with him and our therapist to make the changes that just might set me free but often go through bouts of complete anger when I feel I am being tromped on again. He has only just begun to see his part in this pattern of behavior we have created and he is still at the very beginnings of self reflection. I am somewhat bitter perhaps, that I have spent years trying to find out why I am so anxious, why I have panic attacks, why I feel so unable to accomplish anything for myself- ever… I know that my reactions are my responsibility and blame does no good for anyone and I am certainly working to change that thinking however, I have to wonder- How long does it take to change such patterns? We have been married for 17 years and were high school sweethearts before that… sometimes I just feel like it is hopeless and I am just wasting my time and energy on another “let me put myself on the back burner and help you” wild goose chase. How do we know when we are doing what is best and making proper balanced decisions????

    1. Dear Traci, I feel your frustration. There is a lot in that comment that needs to be unpacked though…
      I’m really glad that you are in the process of an inner journey – you need to first find your own self before you can confidently and compassionately attend to your needs. I feel that there is a lot of numbing on your part and you’ll need understand why it is so.
      Don’t lose hope at all – you’re on a journey that not everyone gets to undertake. You may be in the darkness of the tunnel right now, but there is light at the end of it. I promise you that once you get there, you will find a renewed energy in your life and your relationship that’ll make it all worth it.
      You ask how do we know what we’re doing is best? Its our heart and gut that tells us – and if you’ve numbed yourself to them, you may continue to feel ambivalent, doubt yourself and never embrace the journey fully. I suggest you work with your therapist to uncover this.
      If you feel I can help you in any way, I offer counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy via Skype – I’m in the process of redoing my website and so you don’t see it reflected there yet. But you’re welcome to contact me and we can set up a free call to discuss further. All the best!

  5. I have always been a perfectionist, and I never knew what to do about it. I just went through life always trying to manage it, but this article has really opened my eyes. Thank you so much!

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