Perfectionism and Striving for Excellence: A Thin Line
American novelist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamott calls perfectionism “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” Something will keep us cramped and insane our whole life. Like many other aspiring women, for years I struggled with perfectionism. Even till today I haven’t shrugged off that curse. However, I have gained much more understanding about this disease.
It is no brainer that perfectionism is no good for you. I remembered how I was taught in university to mention perfectionism when job interviewers ask about my weakness. (This advice, by the way, is total bullshit). My constant struggle, in both work and personal life, was to draw the line between perfectionism and striving for excellence and to realize whenever I crossed it. It was a very blur line and I had stumbled down the wrong track many times.
So I decided to figure it out and picked up “The Gift of Imperfection” of Brene Brown. This book is a gem and the reading experience was soul-stretching. I felt as if Brene was talking directly to me, an insecure woman to another insecure woman. Each chapter shed more light in my search for self-worth. Here is how she defines perfectionism and explains its destructive power:
Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’'
Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable—there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.
For me to overcome Perfectionism, it was crucial to distinguish between Perfectionism and Striving for Excellence. Below are what I learnt through years of disorientation over the blur line:
Striving for Excellence focuses on the process. Perfectionism focus on the ideal outcome. Hence, Striving for Excellent people are more willing to say yes and take risks and making messes: the shitty first draft of a novel, the first baguette stand of a startup chain, a new idea; while Perfectionists are not, for being afraid of “messing up” or “screwing up.”
Striving for Excellence people starts now, they understand the power of vulnerability and that the learning lies in the doing. Perfectionists are busy making shields and never bullet-proof enough to start.
Striving for Excellent people don’t measure their self-worth by the result. Perfectionists do. Therefore, the first forgive themselves when they mistakes and move on; while the latter torment themselves over the past.
Striving for Excellence, at its heart, is self-love and self-compassion. This leads to strong desire for for self-improvement. To the contrary, Perfectionism is full of self-loath, insecurity and shame. This leads to the rat race to please, perform, perfect. In consequence, Striving for Excellence people prioritize their health, their mental and emotional sanity; Perfectionists “sacrifice” and burn themselves to follow an illusion like insects attracted to light.
Striving for excellence comes from a place of abundance - “I am enough. I deserve love and belonging now.” On the other hand, Perfectionism come from a place of inadequacy - “I am not enough. I need to hustle some more to deserve love and belonging.”
Here is an simple example to illustrate the point. Like all women, I had a deep insecurity about body image, though I’d never admitted. I went to the gym every morning and I was proud of my discipline. My friends admired me. Great! I was healthier, my mind got sharper, and I had more energy during the day. I was on the Striving for Excellence track until one day I came across some images of women who have amazing body, those abs, those thigh-gaps. I didn’t have all these; I started fantasying. I went to the gym harder, but now no longer for health, but for a perfect body. I worked out hard even when I was sick because I wanted those abs so badly. Of course, I ended up getting sicker. On days that I couldn’t work out, I blame myself and grew insecure. I kept looking at those great bodies of other woman. That went on for a couple of months.
One day I woke up to a realization that “life is so short”. That there is a fundamental difference between working out because I love my body, and because I love somebody else’s body. That I am worthy of love and belonging now without the abs or the thigh-gaps. I came back to yoga because yoga gives me serenity and mindfulness, a slender flexible body. I take a day off to tend myself when I get sick. I cut through my resistance every morning by telling myself “I’m doing this for me. My body and mind deserve getting stronger.”
It is not easy. I fall back to the alluring dark pit of insecurity from time to time. I doubt that I will ever completely get rid of perfectionism. But, nothing is perfect. I cannot be a perfectionist in my own recovery from perfectionism. What matters is to bounce back each time to the tender, warm and soft place of abundance and self-compassion. To remind myself “I am enough.”