[November 13, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas
LIVE YOUR STRONGEST LIFE: PURPOSE vs. perfection
This is our Healthy Me Series designed to encourage each of you to rethink what success looks like personally and professionally in today’s world. We start by asking: What is success in an era of geographic distancing, political and social unrest, social media overload, continuous change, conflicting values and priorities, and polarization on every front? How can we have the energy and insights to be all that we can be for ourselves and others? And why do I feel so compelled to reimagine a better way? This series is for those who are feeling the disconnect between head and heart, the status quo and a healthy future. This series is for you.
This second blog in the Healthy Me Series is focused on living out of a perfectionist mindset rather than living with intention.
A Mindset of Perfection
What does it mean to live out of a mindset of perfection? And, who is the judge of meeting those standards of perfection?
So many of us, particularly women, struggle with living and leading out of a perfection mindset -- the pursuit of striving for the appearance of flawlessness in our actions, appearance, and performance. Many of us were socialized through a variety of messages growing up about being nice, pleasing others, going along to get along, and moving forward with caution to avoid risk. There is also a newer cult of perfectionism that comes from helicopter parenting and social media obsessions. Regardless of the cause, the mindset is unhealthy. (Honestly, wouldn’t it be more fun to celebrate our uniqueness? Let’s ponder that for a moment before we move on).
Perfectionism is a mindset that has destructive and adaptive forms expressed in high personal standards that are accompanied by a disparity between the real and the ideal. It is different than striving for excellence. Rather, it starts with a focus on self and the desire to earn the respect of others and put an end to those buried feelings of inadequacy, shame and judgment. Each move made is with an eye towards the approval of others (past, present and future). It includes living on the defensive – resisting, avoiding or denying mistakes, failures, unmet expectations, and criticism. This conquest for perfection can be exhausting and demoralizing! As perfectionists strive to look good and please others, they set themselves up to feel failure – because they are human and fall short.
This feeling of inadequacy is exacerbated in an age of ubiquitous social media. It is not uncommon to feel seduced by the invisible pressure of personal and professional perfection, and allow ourselves to present as an expression of someone else’s expectations. Secretly, however, we focus on our weaknesses and deficits and end up feeling like an imposter -- empty, guilty, not enough. Any of this sound familiar?
Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection
The founder of “Girls Who Code,” Reshma Saujani, is an avid promoter of socializing young girls to be brave and take risks through learning to code. In her Ted Talk (2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC9da6eqaqg Reshma describes coding as an endless process of trial and error. There is no expectation to get it right the first time. In fact, the only way to succeed is through the iterative trial-and-error process – coding, making mistakes, learning from them, and adapting. It requires perseverance, failure, bouncing back and trying again.
One of Reshma’s messages is about the importance of showing these girls that they will be loved and accepted -- not for being perfect, but for their courage. Can we get an AMEN here?! They learn that it’s ok to not get it right the first time, but to keep going. And guess what, these girls are not just learning to code, they’re learning to persevere, be resilient and contribute to the world!! Wow - so different from those of us who stress that we need to get it right EVERY time!
Find Your Strongest Life
In “Find Your Strongest Life,” Marcus Buckingham (2009) explores how women are less happy than ever in spite of their progress toward greater equality and choice. His research attributes this unhappiness to the endless choices we are able to make and the almost frenetic desire to -- do -- achieve -- perfect.
American author, journalist and opinion columnist Anna Quindlen states:
“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
Ahh yes. There is such freedom, as well as struggle, in this worthwhile journey of change towards a healthier way.
Start with quieting your mind and receiving the signals that life sends you. Rather than focus on others’ voices, listen to that still small voice within you. Ask yourself about the identity you have chosen for yourself to date and explore the new truths that are being revealed to you. Begin this journey with eyes and mind wide open! Don’t drown out your newly discovered contradictions with the armor of perfection or the sheer pace of life. Rather, quiet your mind. Investigate those feelings. Trust that you are by far the best judge of those activities and choices that make you feel strong (give you joy and energy) and those that drain the life out of you. We know this is easier said than done – but the key to this new you is to just begin.
Determine to be braver and accept these new and relentless truths about yourself. Give up your illusion of perfection. Actually – this can be quite liberating! Be gentle with yourself. Begin to uncouple fear from failure. Search hard for the moments in your life that bring you joy, peace, contentment, energy. Be curious about the real you – not the perfect you. Literally look at your calendar and see how you spend your time each day. Color code your schedule to indicate which activities make you feel stronger and which ones bring you down. Do this for a week. Mull them over. Feel their truth. Find the time and space to be kind to the real you.
Having the courage to accept what you find means taking your strengths seriously. Don’t ruminate on the ugly. Be forgiving of yourself and demanding at the same time. In other words – be bold!
Begin to live more intentionally. We each have multiple areas of focus in our life – work, home, play, spirituality, creative outlets, etc. Create your list and identify a couple strengths in each focus area. In fact, do this immediately after reading this blog – don’t put it off until tomorrow. Commit to making choices that volunteer your strengths and begin to say no to the rest. Start small and build. Write a series of “no thank you” speeches and start practicing them. This exercise alone can stimulate your journey to discovery.
Remind yourself each day through new routines and rituals that you will make choices with intention. Be specific. As you focus your attention on contributing your strengths, make choices to spend less time on those things that require your deficits -- and you will begin to feel a shift toward more purposeful living.
It’s time to give up the illusion of perfection and control and accept the truth about yourself. Invest your time and energy into intentional choices. You’re worth it!
"Some days, I amaze myself. Other days, I look for my phone while I’m talking on it!” ~Author Unknown
Buckingham, M. (2009). Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Saujani, R. (2016, March 28). Teach girls bravery, not perfection [Video file]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC9da6eqaqg