One area of my life in which I have prioritized the need to practice mindful acceptance is in relation to accepting myself for who I am–skills, limitations, and all!
This came about because I am a hopeless perfectionist! I have spent countless hours perseverating over getting the job done perfectly, being my version of perfect at soccer and cycling, and doing everything that anyone else ever wanted or needed me to do. At times, being a perfectionist has gotten in the way of being who I authentically am.
To illustrate, I have always dreamed of living a life of “saving the world,” or at least the world of a few disadvantaged kids. (Think: the teacher from Freedom Writers or the recovering addict from Machine Gun Preacher.) To me, this is the “Perfect Life.” However, to live this life, people sacrifice a lot along the way! They rarely have time to sleep, take care of themselves or engage in other activities that interest them. Coincidentally, I get really cranky (read: angry and depressed) when I am lacking sleep, not taking care of myself, or don’t have time for things other than work. It’s a fantasy life that really doesn’t match up to who I truly am.
Now, I’m working on checking my perfectionism at the door and learning to accept what I am capable of within the realm of who I am. It’s been hard, and I’m still struggling with it!
What is perfectionism?
One of my spiritual heroes, Brené Brown, described wonderfully what perfectionism actually is. In summarizing the definition she provides in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection (p. 57):
- “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 because it is an unrealistic, unattainable goal. This is true both because we are human and no one is perfect, and because it is based on others’ perception, which is beyond our control.
- Perfectionism is addictive because, when we inevitably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we attribute it to not being perfect enough, reinforcing our faulty belief system.
For a long time, my need to be my version of perfect was most apparent to me in my idealistic dreams of becoming a social worker in an inner city or starting a non-profit helping orphans in a third world country, as well as my reluctance to consider any other profession. My mother often suggested, “Why don’t you become a teacher?” but I quickly dismissed the thought, thinking to myself that the profession was far less heroic than “social worker” or “NGO-starter.” Anything but the most charitable, selfless profession would not suffice.
Authenticity and Perfectionism
It’s difficult to talk about perfectionism without addressing authenticity. To me, authenticity is being who you are (sharing your true thoughts and feelings, acting in a way that is congruent with your beliefs, and expressing and meeting your needs) despite the many expectations that dictate who you “should” be. Brené (yes, I refer to her as if she’s a close friend) adds that authenticity is a practice we must choose on a daily basis. We are not innately authentic or inauthentic, but rather we have moments in which we behave authentically or inauthentically.
Authentically, I truly do want to help people. I love the idea of starting an NGO or helping the most disadvantaged kids, and I know I would love the work, but the time commitment is unrealistic for me. I have come to realize one of my limitations: In order to be effective in helping other people, I have to take care of myself first. It didn’t take me a long time to realize this–the difference in my personality when I get less than 8 hours of sleep, haven’t eaten well, or haven’t exercised for a few days is tangible. However, it did take me a long time to begin to come to terms with this. I’m still working on it. I still have dreams of “saving the world,” and I still hope to change the world in some way for some kids. I just know that I have to do it in a way that allows me to take care of myself as well.
Practicing Mindfulness to “Fight Back” against Perfectionism
Four steps have been helpful to me in beginning to fight back against perfectionism.
- First, I began to understand what perfectionism is and how it impacts me. What areas of my life am I most perfectionist in? What is my definition of perfect/what would I look like, do, and be if I were “perfect”?
- Second, I began to understand who I am and how that corresponds with my “goals.” What are my strengths? My limitations? What do I need in order to be happy, healthy, and at peace? How do my perfectionist goals fit with who I am?
- Third, I began to accept who I really am and who I am NOT. I found that accepting who I am not is much harder than accepting who I am! I already believed that I am smart, caring, and selfless–not too hard to swallow. But, I can’t go without sleep, I’m not super spontaneous, and I’m not very extroverted–well that just messed with my perfectionist goals!
- Finally, I began to set goals that matched the authentic me and make a conscious choice every day to work towards those goals. While I still am drawn to my perfectionist goals, and I think I always will be, I think I am a lot happier chasing after dreams that I will realistically be able to achieve!
In case you were wondering, my “new” profession is teaching–they always say, “Mothers know best!” I teach English as a Second Language to immigrant students in a small city. It is a career that allows me to help a group of kids that need some extra support and also gives me the flexibility to take care of myself and do the things I enjoy! It was hard for me to give up the ideal of a career in social work, but I’m glad I did–now I can be me!