A Little Too Perfect

Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. is one of my absolute favorite researchers and authors. You may have heard of one of her bestselling books, or have seen her with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday. One of the books I frequently recommend to clients, family, and friends is The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Brown lays out 10 guideposts for wholehearted living- today I am going to review the second guidepost, which is related to perfectionism.


Wait- why are we talking about perfectionism? Isn't it good to have high standards? What about school and work- shouldn't we be striving to do the best we can? If we let go of perfectionism, won't we lose our value as students and professionals?

The answer is an emphatic no. In fact, quite the opposite. Brown demystifies two common thoughts on perfectionism. The first is that perfectionism ≠ striving for excellence. She explains how we actually use perfectionism to protect ourselves- if we can just look perfect, we won't have to deal with things that make us uncomfortable- namely, shame. The second thought is that perfectionism ≠ self-improvement. The difference is that perfectionism is based on pleasing and impressing others- teachers, professors, supervisors, parents, friends... even complete strangers. Self-improvement on the other hand, is based on self-appraisal.

I love what Brown says in The Gifts of Imperfection: "Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism." It is so true- perfectionism screams "you aren't good enough- try harder. Do better." Now imagine listening to those messages all day. It is exhausting. Essentially, if we are perfectionists, we are connecting our value to our work. The things we do begin to define our souls- for example, your supervisor gives you a suggestion for improvement. Your automatic thought (seriously, it is automatic- more on this in my next post) is that you aren't a good employee. Your worthiness has been taken down a few notches. You might find yourself avoiding that particular job task because you feel more anxious just thinking about it. Maybe you start avoiding your supervisor, hoping she has forgotten about her suggestion. 

You can work toward being your best self without using perfectionism. Instead, try be kind to yourself. For example, tell yourself that you are going to study for that exam and try your best, but if your grade isn't as high as you had hoped, remind yourself that you are still a valuable person. You are still capable of reaching your goals. You are still worthy.