In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks about different methods in which we shield ourselves from vulnerability. One of these is with perfectionism. She writes:
"Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s a hazardous detour."
"Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen."
"Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities."
Perfectionism for me was always that thing you said at job interviews when asked about a weakness. “Well, I am a bit of a perfectionist”, said it like it was a bad thing but everyone knew it was a good thing. When I read the section on perfectionism in Daring Greatly it sent this immense wave of confusion, emotion, shock, and then clarity over me. I found myself awkwardly tearing up as I sat in a cafe, holding the book in front of my face so no one could see.
My first memory with having perfectionism put on me was in fourth grade. My teacher, at the Waldorf school I attended, was going through a lot of personal matters and had made the tough decision to leave our class. Typically a Waldorf teacher stays with their class from first through eighth grade. The month she left she took each of my classmates aside to have a personal talk. All I really remember about mine is her saying, “Well, we all know that you are good at everything,” and then she found a few small things to say I needed to work on improving. I can remember a momentary swell of pride at her initial comment.
In sixth grade my class had just hung up our charcoal drawings in the hall and an older girl came up to me, looked at my art and annoyed said, “Uh, of course its amazing because you are perfect at everything.” This time my reaction was more of discomfort. I wasn’t perfect I just really liked to draw.
In high school I started hiding my grades because I hated that look my classmates gave me when they saw my report card. I wasn’t the most social of people and I really didn’t want people disliking me because of some letters on a piece of paper. I didn’t try any less hard I just tried to minimize what I shared and who saw what I did. If I was super excited because the paper that I worked so hard on got an A+, I sure didn’t show it.
I created this weird world for myself where I tried way too hard at everything because somehow I didn’t want to disappoint my old teachers or my parents or myself, but at the same time I wouldn’t allow myself to show excitement at my accomplishments or share them with others because it felt embarrassing. Perfectionism in part kept me trapped inside myself not wanting to disappoint but simultaneously not wanting to annoy. It has stopped me from following through with projects, caused me immense anxiety, and has given me panic attacks when I start to compare myself to my peers. I have used it as an excuse to not apply for certain jobs because my website wasn’t “perfect”. It has made me question relationships because they didn’t seem “perfect”. It has made me question my life because if I want to be a mom some day and I have just turned 30 and am trying to focus on my career but if I wait too long and I need to be in NYC but my family is far away and…..but I want it all to be “perfect”.
Reading Brené Brown talk about the shield of perfectionism connected with something so deeply ingrained in who I thought I was or needed to be. I suddenly felt such a beautiful release in anxiety and pressure and self criticism. I suddenly was being told that this thing that I have clung to as my worth and my value I was being told that no, this is your handicap, this actually is a weakness, a cloak that you have been hiding under thinking it is protection when really it is preventing you from letting others see who you actually are. By releasing this shield of perfectionism I am learning to show a more authentic self. A self with flaws and quirks and weirdnesses and mess. And all of this is letting me give myself a break. Letting me be less self critical. Letting me be enough.