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.

Stop Shoulding on Yourself

I should workout more.
I should stop watching Netflix every single night.
I should call my parents more often.
I should volunteer in the community or on campus.

Should, should, should. The little word is so common that we don't often realize how damaging it can be. Take a look at those statements again- they aren't in themselves wrong things to want. If you're a college student, it might be nice to talk to your parents every now and then. If you find yourself on the couch after work every night, it could be a healthy choice to start exercising when you get home instead. 

The problem starts when we connect our worth to these things: I'm not okay the way I am. There's something wrong with me. I'm not good enough. 

You might be thinking- what if I really do want to make a life change? For instance, you might have thoughts like "I should be eating healthier and exercising more." As we know, our thoughts affect our behavior, and so thinking about eating healthier and being more active can help you reach those goals. But here's the thing- once we start placing our worth and value in those things, we enter dangerous territory. 

When I hear someone using the word "should" often, I start thinking about shame. For example: if someone says to me, "I should be a better daughter and call my parents" what I hear is "I'm not a good daughter." This is not the same thing as knowing you are a good daughter, and also knowing you can communicate more often with your parents. Do you see the difference? The first one is about who you are as a person. The second one is about specific behaviors- it is completely independent of your self-worth.

So what to do?

  • Try focusing on activities and behaviors instead of painting yourself in broad strokes. This keeps your value and self-worth intact while making changes. 

  • When you notice a "should" statement, ask yourself what the reason is- when you think "I should study more" is it related to passing your exams, or is it about who you are as a student- and as a person? What will happen if you don't do the things you think you should be doing?

  • Write it down! Taking a moment to write down automatic thoughts will help you to understand those internal messages- and slowing down gives you the opportunity to change your thoughts!