I, like so many people, was raised to be perfect. I still recall, at 7 years old, my dad standing over me at the piano and hitting my hands with a ruler every time that I made a mistake and having to do math drills over and over again until the score was perfect.
Showing negative emotion was frowned upon by my parents (actually showing emotion at all was frowned upon) as well as getting sick, falling in the dirt, getting less than 100% or not clearing and cleaning my dishes immediately after eating. If I did break a dish, I would clean it up quickly and wrap it in lots of bags and throw it directly into the outside garbage buried under the other garbage to make it seem like it never happened.
Mistakes were shameful, hidden and for other people. I know my parents loved me and wanted what was best for me and did those things only out of love and their hopes for me. I am grateful and cherish some of the values that have emerged from this experience like excellence, self-improvement, perseverance, and accountability, but there is also a downside.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized I was a perfectionist. I’d never even considered that I was one because well, I simply wasn’t perfect at anything. But perfectionism is not about being perfect – it’s about all or nothing thinking (black or white). I was either ‘perfect,’ or I failed. As you know, there really is no such thing as perfect, or at least it’s fleeting so I spent most of my life feeling like I had failed or was failing or was going to fail.
It has been a big motivator, and I have to say that the fear of failure (or not being perfect) has pushed me through school, through exams, through designations, through work, promotions, raises, and through life. It has pushed me to accomplish and achieve things that I am proud of, but if I’m honest, the feelings of success have lasted perhaps a day or two at most until I was filled again with the pressure to keep it up and not fail at the next thing on the horizon. In other words, it wasn’t very enjoyable and there was not a lot of acknowledgement and celebration going on in my head.
Someone wise once told me that perfectionism is not about the result you achieve, it’s about the self-judgement that happens when you don’t achieve it, which let’s face it, is pretty much all of the time. So, for perfectionists, it means that we either live life judging ourselves constantly or limit our lives to doing only what we feel we can do perfectly (which is obviously very limiting and still has us judging ourselves for falling short).
I remember watching Yuna Kim, the Korean Olympic skater (Canadian Brian Orser was her coach at the time) skate her last program to win gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver BC. I got so emotional watching her skate as did so many others. At the time I thought it was because she won the gold and I always have had an appreciation for how much hard work and training it takes to be in the Olympics let alone get on the podium but I realized afterward that it was not just that she worked hard, it was because her skating that day was the definition of perfect – it metaphorically represented the ideal that I and so many others had been striving for.
So, let’s get down to it – here is me being honest and sharing some of my imperfect thoughts – every once in a while, I feel unmotivated and disappointed in the world. I turn on the news and just feel tired and hopeless and drained. I lose faith in humanity and think that for every good thing that people try to put out into the world, there are 100 things that people do to hurt other people, maybe not intentionally, but out of fear, greed, conscious ignorance, or lack of awareness. I feel angry and frustrated.
I have a moment of anxiety writing these words and then tell myself I will never post this, but then I’m filled with something else. By telling someone or letting myself accept, acknowledge, and process what I’m feeling (no matter how ugly and uninspiring it seems), it takes me to another place. It allows me to honour who I am by being honest about what I’m really feeling as opposed to what I think I should feel.
When I allow myself to feel negative ‘imperfect’ emotions about myself, about people or situations, I initially feel shame, self-judgement and want to avoid going there, but if I let myself just embrace the feelings, this is what usually happens:
- I usually feel pretty small and helpless and that what I do won’t have an impact and doesn’t matter so what’s the point.
- I give up, and for a moment, my mind empties, and I’m quiet and everything is still.
- I start to think if what I do won’t have an impact and doesn’t matter, then I can pretty much do anything that I want.
- Then I feel empowered to take an action that I’ve never considered before and free to let down my guard. Suddenly instead of feeling helpless, I’m able to feel and see the possibilities that I couldn’t see before.
So little of what we choose to focus on will matter at the end of the day. What will matter to me? That my life had more of a positive impact than a negative one, that I helped make people’s lives better and was there for them, that I loved with my whole heart and nothing was left unsaid or undone. That I honestly went after what I really wanted both professionally and personally. That I was happy.
By giving myself permission to be imperfect and by not judging my negative feelings, I feel peace, acceptance, and freedom. It also opens me up to access the other great feelings that were being blocked like hope, faith and joy and
I realize that I don’t have to give up on striving for my ideals.
There is no pressure here – only possibilities. What are some of the imperfect thoughts and feelings that you are not giving yourself permission to say, feel or be with? Without the pressure of perfection, what is possible?