Making Peace with Perfectionism
Hi. My name is Nancy Kalina and I am a perfectionist. Although, these days I like to say that I am a recovering perfectionist, but a perfectionist nonetheless. What is a perfectionist? If you are asking this question, you must not live in our culture, because perfectionism is rampant in our society today. Wikipedia defines perfectionism as “a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” I have a hypothesis that even if we don’t claim this label for ourselves, we at the very least all know one person — if not many — who is a perfectionist.
For a long time, I thought that being a perfectionist (a label I did not consciously claim) was a good thing. I rationalized that it propelled me to always do my best, work hard and not be satisfied with anything less than phenomenal.
During my life I have desired to …
have perfect grades growing up;
have the perfect body;
be the perfect person (whatever that means);
be the perfect meditator;
be the perfect cook and host;
be the perfect teacher;
have the perfect website;
be the perfect life coach;
have perfect results when coaching people;
have the perfect relationship;
have the perfect garden (no deer damage); and, most important,
never fail at anything.
The list could go on and on. However, recently I have been learning more about myself, my perfectionism, where it comes from and the harm that it can cause. I always thought that I learned to be a perfectionist because my parents had high expectations and my father was a perfectionist. I have come to realize that while I certainly learned some of the behaviors from my upbringing, desiring to be a perfectionist in every aspect of my life is actually a master cover-up job for the emotion of shame. I will come back to this.
I have done a good deal of coaching on this subject of perfectionism, and it has led me to major discoveries. You see, when one desires to be perfect, there is really no room for error. Cognitively I was aware that we learn from our mistakes, and I would express this to the people with disabilities that I supported. Still, I did not hear or adhere to those incredibly wise words in my own life. I was modeling perfectionism every day, whether I was fully aware of it or not. Many of my perfectionist thoughts have been subconscious, but they still operated with an amazing drive toward impeccability. As I lived the life of a perfectionist, I began to see what can happen when we don’t love ourselves unconditionally, when we flog ourselves for not being perfect, when we whip ourselves into a frenzied drive toward being the best, and when we berate ourselves for not living up to our own expectations of perfection. I have experienced tremendous stress, anxiety, depression, and a nervous breakdown. Shame — especially when we are hiding it — has amazing consequences. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and author of The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, notes that as a result, “We are the most obese, medicated, addicted and in-debt Americans EVER” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 2010).
How did this happen? How did I get to be so intolerant of good or mediocre? How did I come to believe that nothing I did was ever good enough? That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? I said earlier that perfectionism is a massive cover-up for shame, and I have come to believe — with incredible support from Brene Brown and a dear friend — that I have been experiencing shame but avoiding the feeling by simply trying to be perfect. Brown defines shame this way: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 2010). Wow, what an awakening this has been!
As I look back over my life, I can see desiring to be perfect was truly a desire for love and belonging. Through our culture, we receive messages all the time of what it means to “fit in,” or belong. When I was an adolescent and I had active epilepsy, I was terribly ashamed. I felt that my epilepsy meant that I was not normal, and I so wanted to be normal as a teen. I think we can all agree that the majority of teens feel this undeniable urge to fit in. I did not see the beauty of my epilepsy until years later. Even then, I still struggled to be perfect despite my disability, when in reality, I was perfectly imperfect because of my disability. Having epilepsy led me into the field of supporting people with disabilities to be their best selves. While I may have made peace with my epilepsy, my desire to be or at least appear perfect continues to be a large presence in my life.
Brown states, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” She also states that “practicing courage, compassion and connection in our daily lives is how we cultivate worthiness.”
I wish I could simply flip a switch and decide not to be a perfectionist any longer. However, it doesn’t work that way. It’s a matter of practice. So, I practice courage, compassion and connection daily. Today, I practiced by sharing this part of my story with you. I am not perfect and that’s OK.
I encourage you to practice with me. Share your story. Be brave and let yourself be the perfectly imperfect you that you were meant to be.
The Caring for the Caregiver Workshop is right around the corner! The next teaser is Saturday, Oct. 5. The four-day workshop begins Saturday, Oct. 12. Check out the flyer and come join us for a wonderful, energetic and healing experience! Pre-registration is required. Register on my homepage at nancykalina.com
I also wanted to share with you Brene Brown’s books. They are absolutely amazing! I encourage you all to go out and borrow from the library or buy The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. The work that Brown is doing is life-changing and, in my opinion, some of the most important work being done on the planet currently. I am truly excited to go see her in person this month. Also, I am contemplating facilitating a book club around Daring Greatly this winter. Let me know if this interests you!
One thing I have learned about being a perfectionist is that we don’t like to fail. As a matter of fact, we hate it! Failing is part of life. Failing is how we learn. Failing is how we get better! I discovered this video this summer to help illustrate that point to myself and to a client. I hope you enjoy it!
Until next time,
Safe Space Life Coaching