Last updated on July 14th, 2022 at 11:08 pm
I always like to joke that I am a “Recovering Perfectionist.” I could totally lead those “Perfectionists Anonymous” 12-step meetings, stand up in the front of the room, sweep my long red bangs off to the side as they fall into my eyes, and declare to the crowd:
“Hi, my name is Lisa, and I’m a perfectionist.”
My extreme case of perfectionism used to actively torture me 24/7, whereas now it’s more like a mild case of the hiccups that returns every once in a while, so you have to down a spoonful of sugar or have someone jump out at you and say “BOO!” to make it go away.
I had a breakthrough in my own case of “Perfectionists’ Syndrome” this past weekend, and thought I’d share.
In my observations of life so far, I don’t seem to be alone in expecting more than is ever possible from myself, or devaluing myself if I don’t meet some impossible ideal. Perfectionism can really get in the way of your big dreams.
It does seem, however, that there is hope for even the most hard-core recovering perfectionists, like me.
Starting in Childhood
When adults make a big deal of your intelligence and capabilities when you are a child, and when you realize early on that you have an ability to perform academically at a high level, as I did, the idea of failure can become a haunting specter. It is not allowed.
In my little brain, it wasn’t, anyway. I remember crying the first time I got less than an A on a French test in the 5th grade. How could that have possibly happened? I’m sure there were much bigger world tragedies happening at the moment, but for me, that was cause for great shame and sorrow. For Chrissakes, I got a B!!!! (not even an A-, a B).
Whenever the teacher would yell at the whole classroom when I was a little girl, I always swore he or she was yelling at me, although of course, I was generally the annoying well-behaved, and quiet teacher’s pet who wasn’t doing anything wrong, ever.
I am guessing that my sense of perfectionism and tendency to judge myself via my accomplishments and achievements in the world got drilled into me back then. It’s a very masculine model, actually, to judge oneself via what one accomplishes. Not to worry, I would also eventually decide that I had to be “perfect” in the feminine sense as well. As a teenager, I started judging myself more acutely for how I looked and began to create impossible physical standards of perfection for myself.
I’m sure I’m not the only teenage girl who despaired of ever not looking like the supermodels in the magazines. I obsessed with my body, but it never seemed to reach that impossible standard of perfection I longed for. I didn’t have perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect anything!
And Now That I’m All Grown Up
One would think that once one is no longer a hormone-crazed teenager, one could drop all the neuroses and insecurities of those years, just like that! Alas, it took me a little bit longer than a flash.
As an adult, I discovered all kinds of new ways I could judge myself against an impossible ideal, and not measure up! How was I doing in my career? Surely someone out there was surpassing me! Had I made enough money yet to truly be “successful” by some arbitrary societal standard? Was I, right this minute, madly in love with my soul-mate who was also madly in love with me, and having wild passionate get-aways regularly with said lover on exotic romantic islands?
Because, surely, I should have/be/do all of these things, while also looking sexy and amazing, being cheerful constantly, being a great daughter/sister/friend, and having an impeccably clean house!
Did anyone else get their mind programmed with all this nonsense about us women needing to look like Barbie, have a phenomenally successful career, and be the Perfect Everywoman on top of it all, all the time? It’s completely insane, right? A fantasy that we measure ourselves against, find ourselves falling short, and sometimes even drop into negative emotions like despair. “I’ll never have it all together!”
I’ve definitely told myself that sometimes when my “real” life wasn’t quite measuring up to my “imaginary” life.
And yet my “real life” is amazing ~ I am privileged to be happy and healthy, to have a flexible lifestyle, to do fun work empowering others, to travel often to exotic places, to have amazing family and friends, and a beautiful house in a little walkable historic community just a few hours from NYC and Boston.
When I am fully in gratitude for my life I have zero complaints. It’s a wonderful life.
What If We Are Good Enough, Right Now, As We Are?
I believe, passionately, in a truth that my Buddhist spiritual teacher Nithya Shanti shares, that in fact radically changed my life: “Everything is perfect, exactly as it is (including us!), and can also joyfully be improved.”
To me, this is simply evolution, nature in action. We accept that nature is “perfect as it is” and also always changing, and yet we find that so hard to accept in ourselves sometimes. I believe this. I teach it. I feel that it is true for all beings. AND I still have my moments in which I doubt that it is true for me as if I’m the one who is exempt from this rule.
Everyone else is surely good enough as they are, and also joyfully improving, but me? I should be perfect by now, really, shouldn’t I? Haven’t I been trying long and hard enough? Even if I’m only trying to be “the perfect me,” not the perfect “anyone else,” shouldn’t I… well… be there yet? Wherever “there” is?
Enjoying the Journey
What dawned on me last weekend, finally, or what I simply remembered again (sometimes I forget!) is that this whole idea of getting anywhere is based on a false concept. Life is a journey, a process, and there is nothing static about it.
If we’re lucky, for as long as we live, for long, happy, and healthy life, we will keep learning and growing, facing new challenges, and becoming even more authentic ourselves. The whole idea of whether or not we are “worthy” of living our dreams is a moot point too, actually. If I could share one message with young women everywhere, it would be: YES you are worthy; yes you are good enough and smart enough and beautiful enough already.
Rather than question our worth, which seems to be an epidemic that plagues women especially, let’s just get out there in the world and do what we want to do, create positive change, have fun, and love ourselves and others.
The world needs our love, not our fear. This means we need to keep choosing love over fear, again and again, ourselves.
Suggestions for Recovering Perfectionists
If you still sometimes have a hard time accepting yourself, and where you are, here are tips that may help:
1. Remember that no one on the human plane is “perfect,” free of mistakes. Life is a process of figuring it all out as we go! That’s true for everyone.
2. Ask others what value you add, if you’re having a hard time feeling it yourself. We often do so much more and are so much more, and give so much more, than we give ourselves credit for.
3. Remember in the end that your job on this planet is pretty simple: just be yourself, since you are the only you all of the time. If you can love yourself and give your gifts, while accepting your own humanity and imperfections, that’s the greatest gift to the world.
4. Forget about yourself by focusing on others or a cause that is greater than you. When we give our lives to a greater purpose, it doesn’t matter anywhere what we perceive our own limitations to be. We often find the energy to step up and do things much greater than we ever imagined we could.
5. Find ways to laugh at yourself and to just have fun, wherever you are in life. Life is much happier when we can “lighten up,” and especially not take ourselves so seriously.
Lisa P. Graham is an inspirational writer, life coach, TED motivational speaker, and globe-trotter whose passion is to help others to find happiness and meaning in their daily lives. A political activist at heart, Lisa would like to empower more women to run for political office as a way to create positive change in the world. You can find her on her website or watch her TEDx speech on YouTube.
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