By: Sarah Cline, LCSW, PMH-C
I believe it was Brene Brown, PH.D. (a researcher, author, and social work professor) who said, “The magic is in the mess.” As a young woman, lost in the mess of juggling a home, a career, and two small kids,I took that statement to heart. Brene Brown has been an idol of mine and so many others so her words meant so much to me. She is honest in her books and talks about her own struggles with perfectionism, substance abuse, and shame. Despite Brene’s admitted so-called imperfections, millions of people love her, buy her books, watch her Ted Talks, and her Netflix special. Many therapists flock to her trainings to learn ways to help their clients live wholeheartedly, embrace vulnerability, and cope with shame. There is something special about people who can own their story, imperfections, and vulnerability. I believe this is something we can all learn to do. Below I will discuss ways you can begin to embrace your own messiness.
Let me say, we are ALL messy! Some of us might be a bit more or a bit less but we all have our things. By messy, I mean not a single human being on this earth is perfect. I don’t have any research I can site on that but after forty-one years of life and almost fourteen years of social work practice I hope you’ll take my word for it. So many of us get the idea that we have to always have perfect mental health, look put together, say the right thing, and keep a perfectly maintained house. I could write a whole book on how this plays out in parenthood and with our children but for the purposes of this post I will just say that the striving for perfection bleeds onto our kids and the cycle repeats. Perfectionism is both a symptom and a cause. It is a personality trait that can sometimes be linked to growing up with a narcissistic parent or in a family with abuse or substance issues. A person with perfectionistic tendencies can also be more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and relationship challenges.
So what can we do? We can begin to notice our own striving. Is our striving healthy (i.e. I worked really hard to study for a test and was happy with a B+) or was it unhealthy (i.e. I worked really hard to study for a test and I got a B+ and I think I am stupid because it wasn’t an A)? Do you see the difference. One is just the desire to work towards something, give our best, but to accept the outcome without tying it to our worth as a person. For example, maybe this past weekend you washed seven loads of laundry, folded it, and put it away. Now it is Wednesday and you have a large pile of dirty laundry for a family of four but no time to take care of it. Therefore, you stay up until 2am to do all of the laundry and you are exhausted the next day and still call yourself a failure. That is something one does when perfectionism is driving them. A more accepting approach is to remember that laundry builds up, it will get done, and it is ok to have undone laundry in your home. That undone laundry doesn’t mean anything about who you are as a person or what your worth is. In what areas of your life are you striving for perfection? It could be in your physical appearance, in your relationships, at work, with your kids, or how you handle your household tasks. What is all of this striving costing you? My guess would be it is costing you joy, peace, a sense of well-being, and connected relationships.
If you have figured out that you struggle with perfectionism then you have already done some work by self-reflecting. The next step is to pay attention. Pay attention to your inner dialogue. What are you saying to yourself? What story does your mind make up about you if you fall short of your extremely high expectations of yourself? You are probably not being very compassionate towards yourself in those moments. The voice that is fearful of you being imperfect will shame you and criticize you into continuing your striving. Our mind does this not because we are mean at our core but because at some point it made sense to be hard on ourselves or we learned it from those around us who were hard on themselves and us. Maybe all that striving helped protect us from rejection from a parent who we so desperately wanted praise and affection from. Now that you know that you don’t have to be perfect to be a worthy and loveable person it will be possible to begin to question. When we question our self-critical thoughts we make space, space for that thought to just be a thought but not a fact. So next time you catch yourself in the downward self-shaming spiral, ask yourself, is this actually a fact? What evidence do I have that I am actually horrible? If my friend was struggling with this would I show them compassion? What would happen if I gave myself compassion too?
This work is difficult and complex. It can’t be simplified but hopefully this post gave you some insight and ideas about where one can begin to shift out of perfectionism and into a more self-compassionate stance. It can be hard to do this work without the assistance of an objective and knowledgeable therapist. It can be a hard journey but one worth taking.
Notice, Pause, Question.