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    by Leigh Newman

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gifting
Monday
Jun232008

blog series - embracing imperfection

cover.jpg
Imperfect Parenting Blog Series CD 1 - Track 3 (Post #4)
 
I just sat down to listen to the CD one more time before beginning this post. Big mistake. If listening to my own voice wasn’t bad enough, about 2 seconds in to the track on perfectionism, I gasped and practically snorted Diet Coke out of my nose. For those of you not listening to the CD, I basically start the section by saying, “Perfectionism. Tough.” Then there is silence – like I’m done.

What it lacks in insight, it makes up for in honesty.  

I’ve learned three things about perfectionism that have turned my world upside down. It’s kind of lonely standing on my head in this upside down world – won’t you join me?

#1 Perfectionism is NOT about striving to be your best. It’s NOT about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we’ll escape the pain of criticism, ridicule, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.

#2 Perfectionism is not “focusing on the best we can be.” Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and connection. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports, etc.). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. PLEASE. PERFORM. PERFECT. Healthy striving is self-focused, perfectionism is really “other-focused” – “what will they think?”
 
#3 Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is key to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism doesn’t lead to success. It’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis. Life-paralysis includes all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.

I don’t think some people are perfectionists and others are not. I think perfectionism is on a continuum. We all have some perfectionistic tendencies. For some, perfectionism may only emerge when they’re feeling particularly vulnerable. For others, perfectionism can be compulsive, chronic, and debilitating, similar to addiction.

I’ve started to work on my perfectionism, one messy piece at a time. In doing so, I finally understand (in my bones) the difference between perfectionism and healthy achieving. Exploring our fears and changing our self-talk are two critical steps in overcoming perfectionism. Here’s my example:

Like most women (including the hundreds I’ve interviewed and thousands I’ve talked to), I struggle with my body image, self-confidence, and the always-complicated relationship between food and emotions. Here’s the difference between perfectionism diets and healthy striving health goals:

Perfectionism self-talk – "I’m fat and ugly. I’m ashamed of how I look. I need to be perfect to be accepted and loved. I need to be different than I am right now to be worthy of loving-kindness."

Healthy Striving self-talk – "I want this for me. I want to feel better and be healthier. The scale doesn't dictate if I'm loved and accepted.  Loving-kindness (my belief that I’m worthy of love and respect NOW) will support me through this. I want to figure this out for me. I can do this."

For me, the results of this shift were life changing. Perfectionism didn’t lead to results. It led to peanut butter.

In my research, I found that most people who struggle with perfectionism also struggle with being/feeling judgmental toward others. With perfectionism comes lots of either/or, black/white, good/bad, should/shouldn't thinking. Grey and maybe are too messy. We are often the most judgmental in the areas where we struggle the most with perfectionism. If being the perfect parent is our goal, we're quick to judge others. If looking perfect is important, we are often critical of other people's weight, dress, and general appearance. This judgment can extend to our children.
  
SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU WANT TO CONTINUE ENJOYING JUDGING OTHER PEOPLE, STOP READING HERE.
The research on jugdment tells us that we pick people to judge based on two criteria:
 
1. We judge in areas where we are vulnerable (to shame, perfectionism, feelings of inadequacy)
2. Then, we pick someone who is doing worse than we are.
 
So, the next time you're enjoying tearing someone apart (like we all can) and you remember this . . . you can thank me for taking the wind out of your judging sails. It really has been a judgment buzz kill for me. It's such a drag when it's really about my stuff.
 
The judgment piece makes sense – we can’t be compassionate toward others if we’re not compassionate with ourselves. If we can’t tolerate disappointing others or "not being everything to everyone," we can't tolerate it when other people disappoint and fail (including our children).
 
 
 
On the CD, I talk about this quote from Leonard Cohen's song Anthem: There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. 
 
It's too soon to tell with Charlie, but Ellen will have her work cut out for her. She’s the eldest of two first-born, rule-following, over-achieving children. Perfectionism courses through her veins. We have to work very hard to celebrate the light that shines through those cracks of imperfection.

I do believe, however, that things in our house are becoming brighter as I honor the natural cracks in life. Some of the small things I’m doing include:
 

2. Celebrating her mistakes and risk-taking. She was very embarrassed and worried when she got her first tardy at school. We had a “tardy party” that night. We didn’t celebrate being late, but we normalized it, and celebrated surviving it.
 
3. I rely on faking it until I make it when I have to. It's like practicing imperfection. For example, some friends dropped by a couple of weeks ago. Ellen said, “Mom! Don and Chrissy are at the door!” Our house was trashed and I could tell by the sound of her voice that she was thinking, “Oh no. Mom’s going to freak.” I said, “Just a second,” as I hurried to get dressed. She ran back to my room and said, “Do you want me to help pick up?” I said, “No, I’m just getting dressed. I’m so glad they’re here - what a nice surprise! Who cares about the house!”  Then I put myself in a trance.
 
4. If we’re working on her homework, I’ll say, “It doesn’t need to be perfect, you just need to feel good about it.”  Of course, one of the hardest things for me is posting this series without sending it to my editor. This is literally a woman I keep on retainer so I can shoot her my op-eds and other short pieces. I should probably record myself telling Ellen, “It doesn’t need to be perfect, you just need to feel good about it,” so I can play it when I’m working.

I learn so much from the wisdom and honesty of your comments and emails. I would love to know what you think about perfectionism. How do you let the light in?
 
Imperfectly yours,
Brené

 

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Reader Comments (19)

WHOA there sister....this is a big one for me. HUGE!!!

#3 Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is key to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism doesn’t lead to success. It’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis. Life-paralysis includes all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.

I've never seen my life written like this before. This is me...was me. Perfectionism is debilitating. I could comment for so long on this. I moved out of the hometown that I grew up in and it was a second chance for me. A chance to live out all my fears and failures in a place where no one knew me and nobody cared. Others may have found my situation depressing, but it saved my life.
06.24.2008 | Unregistered Commenterkatie
http://ordinarycourage.squarespace.com/my-blog/2008/4/18/oh-om-ouch-ooh.html

Oh! -- wow. All of that makes so much sense. Perfectionism being about escaping criticism and shame, about trying to achieve acceptance and connection, about being afraid to put anything out there because of the all-consuming fear of failure, because WHO I AM is equal to WHAT I PRODUCE.

Om! -- working hard to practice imperfection with my kids. Two things are resonating very powerfully for me.
1. The difference between healthy and unhealthy is in the self-talk. That's something I can get a hold of, monitor, teach. It's concrete enough to help make it real.
2. If our kids aren't defined by their behaviors when they are bad, we can't let them be defined by those same behaviors when they are good.
This hit me between the eyes - especially with grades. We work hard not to let a bad grade define my 9 year old - but we do NOT work equally hard to not let the usual stellar grades define her. Which leads to....

Ouch! - I have SO far to go. I've messed up so much already. I am never going to be able to do this - be the "perfect parent" -- oops - there goes that self-talk. Okay, how about - yes, I struggle with perfectionism, rooted deeply in my upbringing and psyche. But I can make the choice to be engaged. I can celebrate the wonderful snapshots, and I can stop letting fear keep me from looking at and talking about the ones I'd rather not have in the album. I can work on normalizing imperfection with my own first-born of first-borns and with other parents and we can all begin to reduce some of the toxic perfectionism coursing through our veins.

Ooh! - I'm still waiting.....
06.24.2008 | Unregistered CommenterRenae C
Perfectionism for me is also about control. I grew up in a chaotic household, we never knew what would set my father off and I grew up believing that if I could do things just right, then we wouldn't get mad. I know now, as an adult, that he had his own demons, created by his alcoholic parents, but as I a child, I didn't know. I still like to control things, it reduces my anxiety, because it's familiar. When there is order, I can believe that things will be okay and I can relax. It's not true, but it's what I learned. Now, I'm trying to unlearn it and let me tell you, that's way harder.

Loved the post, good food for thought and I'm hungry for thought.
06.24.2008 | Unregistered Commenterdeb
I think it's interesting that, like Katie, I found freedom in moving away. It's like getting out from under the microscope. I try to neglect my kids a little now (and I mean that in the best way) because the constant hovering and correcting and commentating was smothering for me both then as a young child and now as an adult child. It's like the glee of eating my first Snickers bar for breakfast as a college freshman, but in every minute of my life now. For me, to the degree to which I can shake the critical audience is the degree to which I can become acquainted with risk.
06.24.2008 | Unregistered CommenterJen Lee
"In my research, I found that most people who struggle with perfectionism also struggle with being/feeling judgmental toward others, including their children. It makes sense – we can’t be compassionate toward others if we’re not compassionate with ourselves. If we can’t tolerate disappointing others or "not being everything to everyone," we’ll pass down those fears to our kids."

Too true. Sadly, being compassionate towards myself has been the hardest of anything I've tried so far. Why is that?
06.24.2008 | Unregistered Commenterdeb
"Then I went into a trance." LOL:-)
Love this post. I'm learning so much here. I see control being a huge component of the perfectionism in our house, because we have that illusion that control will protect us somehow. And you want to protect your kids too...

06.24.2008 | Unregistered CommenterDeirdre
Deb's question - "being compassionate towards myself has been the hardest of anything I've tried so far. Why is that?"

If I had to sum up everything I've learned in one sentence, I might say, "Loving our imperfect selves is the greatest risk we'll ever take; however, we must be willing to embrace these fears if we want to live with courage, compassion and connection.”

Everything feels like it works against us loving and forgiving ourselves. For me, I had to go through a tough consciousness-raising process by asking, "who benefits from all of this self doubt and withheld compassion? Interestingly, there are many financial beneficiaries. From Lancôme to Pottery Barn.

Practicing self-compassion (which is an entire track on the CD) is radical and revolutionary. It goes against everything we've been taught and socialized to believe and do. It's so hard (and lonely at times) because it's oddly counter-culture.
06.24.2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrené
I wanted to add a little more to the discussion....I grew up in what I thought was a chaotic situation. Our house was messy and my mom was disorganized. This stressed me out, especally when having friends over. As an adult...I wasn't going to be like that. It wasn't the messy house, it was the stress that it caused. Sifting through clothes piles, losing things, being late, were all a part of that. I was going to be "better" when I was married and had kids. I would stay "on top" of everything. This attitude put me on a perpetual hamster wheel of stress and anxiety and then mental chaos. I then found out as an adult, struggling with our sons learning disabilities, that not only did he have AD/HD but so did I, and my mother and brother also. It is the imperfection that my family carries and came into the world with. When I started seeing our family as imperfect to the core, I knew the jig was up, time to surrender!!! I spent my life trying to "RESTORE" myself and my family back to WHAT???? I really believed I was the one messing them up...AHHH what freedom there is in learing the truth. Perfectionism isn't always straight A's and tidy houses. It's the struggle to be something that doesn't exist.
06.24.2008 | Unregistered Commenterkatie
I really wanted to write something clever like the others so far, because I really feel so much the same, but I nearly didn't comment because I might not be as good......but then I tried. I suffer from 'perfectionism' I am turning 40 this year and with 2 boys it must stop. In the last few months I have tried holding back from my 7 year old letting him cut-up his own dinner, clean his own teeth, chose his own clothes, you get the picture. Thank you for bringing this to us Brene some of us are hanging onto every word!
06.24.2008 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine
I very much connect with this post and all the comments. I think its interesting how perfectionism actually stops us from healthy striving. For me, I know that I'll have whole phases of perfectionism and will feel tired, exhausted, and frustrated wondering what is wrong with my life. It always seems to come back to the fact that I'm living to be "perfect" in some way that has nothing to do with what is actually best for me and my family. Thanks for this post!
06.24.2008 | Unregistered Commenterleslie
I find myself being judgmental toward others more often than I'm comfortable with and this post has really let some light in on the why's of that. Thanks.

I'm always pushed a bit out of my comfort zone over here.
06.24.2008 | Unregistered CommenterThe Other Laura
I do find that I lack compassion sometimes and think it is directly related to how I feel about myself at the time. My husband and I do not even have children yet, but I find myself being critical of how others handle their children and saying to myself "When I am a mother, I will do this or that". That is a disregard of the nature of the child that is to be. Very selfish. I also struggle with our home. As a so-called 'design' blogger I can sometimes fall into the trap of feeling like my home has to be perfect, or else I shouldn't be blogging. I combat that by limiting the amount that I talk about myself or my home, and being as authentic as I can when I do. If someone is not impressed by my 1985 wallpaper in my kitchen they can read someone else's blog.
How I let the light in = on my good days I catch myself and change my thought patterns. Deep breaths help. Shutting the TV works wonders. Staying away from the mall also helps. Saying 'No' can be empowering.
06.25.2008 | Unregistered Commentererinn
What a huge post! Which covers such a big part of our lifes!

I grew up with a mom that was really disorganised and messy, was busy with 10 things at once, but always knew where everything was. I always tried to be perfect to get their affection and I would think attention? (don't know if it makes sense).

5 Years ago I started my own nursery school from my home and my business partner IS A PERFECTIONIST. (she washes her kitchen floor 14.30 on a Saturday afternoon). So I thought to get her approval my house and school needs to be tip top all the time. Also, one of my biggest fears was that I don't want to be like my mom one day...:-)

Then, 4 years ago, standing in the kitchen, cleaning madly, I remember stopping - asking myself: so what if I'm like my mom. she has greatness within her messiness and a heart of gold.

That just did it for me. When I let go of trying to get other people's approval, I could be me. My house is clean, but messy, I'm not a sjef, but we have delicious meals, I'm not organised, but thrive on doing things on number 99. I'm a good friend, a great wife and people love me for the little things I do.

To let go of what other's think, trusting that you know who you are and what honestly work for you, have been the light shining through for me.

This is huge topic and difficult to write a few things down...

I don't know if any of you have read 'the breakthrough experience' by Dr. John F Demartini? Brilliant book and when I clicked the part where you judge something, that it is your own stuff... magical! my heart quickly closed! then it opened up and love is pouring out for others and myself!

I'm a work in progress... the only difference between years back and now is that I love myself while doing it! xx

PS: Brene, while reading the part about the body image, i thought oh i'm ok... and then 'It led to peanut butter'...oops! :-)
06.25.2008 | Unregistered CommenterLinni
Such a rich post, Brene. And so many comments filled with insight! I let the light in by trying to stop the inner chatter and all the comparing... By trying to stay aware of why I am stuck! We only care about perfectionism because we compare ourselves all the time. We have such desire and hunger for connection, and yet, we mostly push people away with our judgment and resentment, towards them and towards ourselves. It sure is a life time practice. Thanks for your post. Sharing our ideas is a lovely way to stay connected and aware. xo
06.26.2008 | Unregistered CommenterGypsy Alex
I haven't posted much as I am "sitting with" this material, or at least that's what I'm telling myself. Seriously, I listen and read and think, "oh yeah-that's TOTALLY me." And then I sort of hit a mental wall. A wall that requires a completely different activity to "get back on track," like, oh say-watering the lawn. I feel like I need therapy worksheets to fill out or something. Sheesh-but please don't stop writing or talking. Or asking for feedback. I really what to have something to hold on to when the series is over. So, I will keep listening and reading and "sitting with" the material. And asking myself, where can I celebrate the light shining through the cracks and how can I be completely engaged in parenting my 21 month daughter and still "other" aware.
06.26.2008 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda Mankin
I am in the process of my own 'awakening' and have been since February. It is through my therapist that I learned of your book, and wouldn't you know it each of my shame triggers are directly related to my deep struggle with perfectionism and what I think others think of me!

I struggle accepting compliments. If someone compliments me on my parenting skills or how nice the house looks I then take this compliment as an expectation which I must now meet and not fall below. And when I do, which of course I will since I am not perfect, I feel as if I have failed myself and the one who gave the compliment. I have finally discovered in this 'awakening' that someone is complimenting me on a moment in time not every single thing I have done or will do.

Through great conversations with my mom about this process I have learned the root of some of my perfectionism. I grew up hearing, 'If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.' I took that on as it must be PERFECT! My mom passed this along b/c it is one of the things she remembers her dad telling her before he died when she was 12. Together we figured out he was not expecting perfection. He was just trying to instill a strong work ethic. Needless to say this was a very powerful moment for both my mom and me.

I am taking baby steps in acknowledging the light and accepting it. I am learning to actually love and appreciate this light which makes me who I am am... unique and unlike any one else. This is a HUGE statement for me who has been SO concerned with wanting everyone to like and accept me.

By letting this light in and allowing others to see these cracks/vulnerabilites I have been able to be more real and authentic with others.

Now how to use all of this as a parent... a new journey awaits. I love how you have said we can't offer our kids something we don't have. I guess that is really what brought me to the point of finally being willing to speak to a therapist. I didn't want my girls (ages 5 yrs and 17 months) to watch and learn my own struggles with shame.
06.26.2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey D
Just happened upon your blog today and this is something I needed. I grew up being a straight A, people pleasing perfectionist kind of girl. Now that I'm a mother imperfection can rule my days. The perfectionist side of me rebels but it's usually my husband that brings back to reality. I'm trying to embrace the "light coming through the cracks" but it's hard. I'm 3 weeks away from having my second child (could be less) and my house is chaotic, the baby nursery just got painted. We're in the mist of enclosing our back patio to make a new office. I keep telling myself that the bassinet will be more than sufficient for a newborn and she won't know that her room isn't ready (but I will). This post has really put things into perspective for me. I need to focus on the joy to come with our new blessing and not worry about having a perfect home to welcome her home in. It will get done eventually. Thanks for the encouragement!
07.18.2008 | Unregistered Commenteramber
I have a beautiful home, and for many years have enjoyed a lovely set of crate and barrel furniture given to me by my amazing Godmother. It is all dark wood, a beautiful red couch, chennile sofa, scrumptous...about a year ago I was taking off my fake fingernails (there's a whole load of perfectionist issues in that ritual right there!) and well I madea mistake and put the bottle of remover down on the wood...ate right through the beautiful varnish. There is now a ring of wood that has been damaged. It's funny because a few years ago I probably would have called someone to come and repair it like the NEXT day. But here we are a year later and it still isn't fixed. One I think that says that I've learned how to relax a little, but to be honest I still cover it up with a coaster :). I don't really want people to see the imperfection, but it peeks out every now and again and in some weird way when I see it I'm reminded that life doesn't end because of our mistakes.

It's a simple lesson, but to be honest I think I've grown to like that little imperfect spot. It reminds me of an important truth and maybe adds just a little bit to my sanity. Course, I will eventually have it fixed--we can't totally keep perfectionism at bay :).

Thanks for the post, all good words and a few laughs intermingled.
03.5.2010 | Unregistered CommenterLauren Santerre
The comments on judging were a huge a-ha for me. I realized that I worry about my own imperfect parenting and then judge other women who appear to be struggling more. That's the opposite of the compassionate way that I want to live my life. Thanks for the uncomfortable moment that helpfully will lead to celebrating good enough instead of one-upping others.
08.1.2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristi

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