On Being (Im)Perfect
As a little person, I learned what made me lovable from the people and places I grew up around.
Good grades. A small body. Athleticism. Politeness. Table manners. Care-taking. Putting others’ needs before my own. Self-control. Modesty.
There were other things, but those stood out to me in reflection, for one of two reasons: I was good and successful at them, or I really wasn’t.
I wasn’t athletic. I had a larger body than is socially desirable. I sometimes had feelings that are outside of my control (duh, I’m human). And, when I thought about these things, I had the feeling of falling short. It’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, right in the gut: there’s something wrong with me. I’m not living up to my potential. Who’s going to love me like this?
Trying to be great at these things caused me pain and held me back from being myself. Putting others’ needs before my own led me to neglect myself, which fostered low self-esteem and put me in risky and toxic relationships. Modesty reinforced the low self-esteem and made it hard to own my contributions to the world. Table manners… well, who really cares?
The point of all of this is that perfection is determined by something outside of ourselves. Perfectionism is a futile attempt to live perfectly up to a standard that often wasn’t set by us. And it results in a lot of time wasted on trying to be something we aren’t, inside.
What about the standards we then set for ourselves? “Healthy” eating. Working out. Being a great friend, partner, worker, family member. We are often striving for something that is ultimately unattainable.
Yes, I’m offering the idea that eating perfectly, exercising perfectly, and being a perfect person are not attainable OR sustainable goals.
Perfectionism can be sneakily underlying all goals. It all depends on self-talk. What do you say to yourself about a particular goal? Are you kind, understanding and compassionate when you fall short, or do you berate yourself for your imperfections and call yourself a failure? Would you talk to your best friend the way you talk to yourself? Why is the goal important to you in the first place - does it align with your values, or does it come from a feeling of unworthiness deep inside?
I also avoid things I think I have to do perfectly. I have avoided sports and exercise activities because I’m afraid I’m not athletic enough. This avoidance prevented me from enjoying games with friends and getting involved in social and school activities. It’s also self-defeating, because in truth athleticism comes from putting in work.
I have also avoided writing. My blog is a great example of this. I stopped writing, and starting up again has been such a struggle because I have big aspirations for myself as a blogger. The bigger my aspirations get, the more I want to be perfect and the more I avoid starting.
Becoming mindful of the ways in which we’re pushing ourselves to be perfect is the first step in figuring out what we really want. I want to be a writer, so I’m a perfectionist about it. It’s a way of showing how much we care and how much the task we are perfectionist about is integral to our identity.
Becoming mindful of our perfectionistic tendencies can also help us identify the quality of our self-talk. The myth in our culture is that success comes from pushing hard and that criticism and tough love is the way that we push ourselves to be better.
I offer this: there is more possibility of change when we speak kindly to ourselves.
Criticizing ourselves when we don’t live up to the ideal we have in our heads prevents us from really examining that ideal and making sustainable change toward it. I changed the way I eat with gradual, incremental, compassionate intention-setting. I have learned to enjoy movement because I don’t push myself to do it all the time. I am learning to recognize what my needs are from the inside, my intuitive and embodied self, rather than from archaic, external notions of how I should be.
What are you striving toward, and how can you be softer, kinder, and more loving toward yourself in that process?