Ever find yourself obsessively fine tuning a report at the expense of other priorities you need to take care of? Or spending countless painful hours attending to the most minute details before friends arrive for dinner? Or perhaps fixing some aspect of your work, home or appearance as though your life depended on it?
Its perfection at play – an adaptive behavior that has subtle but deep roots in low self-worth. We try and “fix” our external worlds in order to make up for a deep inner failing – a sense of being incompetent, unworthy, unlovable in some way – if not for our “success” in this particular area.
For women, studies show that self-worth is often contingent upon other people’s approval, the support of our family, academic success, competition and/or appearance. And there are very real biological and societal reasons this is so.
For one, we are far more relational than men – the mind-maps we make of ourselves are intricately entwined with those of the others in our lives. Which is why we are higher in empathy and compassion – but then we’re also more affected by other people’s remarks and judge ourselves through other people’s achievements and evaluations.
We also have long been held to higher standards – of beauty and of performance. The external messages we receive from our earliest years embed themselves in our beliefs, feed the coffers of the cosmetic industry and wreck havoc in our minds. We starve to have the perfect body, strive to achieve the perfect report card, struggle to be the perfect employee – with no upper limit on what perfection means. Moments of “success” are fleeting – more often than not, we end up beating down on ourselves for failing to reach our mirage.
Add to that the fact that we’re biologically more prone to rumination and to hanging onto the negatives in our lives. Our apparent failures are writ large in our minds and we ruminate about them for hours. Our only consolation lies in raising the bar even higher and promising to do better next time. And the next time and the next…
Breaking free from this cycle does not mean producing substandard work or becoming lesser versions of who we can be. It means choosing excellence instead – the authentic desire to grow, learn, and change for the better. And although perfection and excellence can sound like a play on the same idea, they are profoundly different.
Excellence resides in the higher cortex – the meaning making brain that spins the story of our lives. When we’re grounded in a genuine sense and appreciation of who we are, we form life goals that are realistic and long-term. It is then that we can appreciate the flow of life, learn from failures, and take the steps that lead to growth and upward spirals of flourishing.
Perfection, on the other hand, lives in the emotional brain – the efforts of a threatened mind to prove its worth. Lacking authentic self-worth, we seek it through whatever family demands and external forces we grow up with. Our self-worth becomes contingent upon that one (or few) areas which we hang on to, to safeguard our fragile sense of self-worth. No wonder, we live limited lives, sometimes on the verge of depression and other psychological disorders.
What are we to do?
Be kind to yourself and recognize that your true worth lies in being human and being courageous enough to show up in life every day and do your best despite your struggles and failings. Adam Smith wrote: “We’re flawed. Recognizing our flaws is the beginning of wisdom.” He certainly was wise!
Focus On Others
Shift your focus from an “ego-system” to an “eco-system” says psychologist Jennifer Crocker. Forget appearing awesome. Think of the difference you can make to others by what you do. And then focus on what is working and what you can change for the better.
See the Bigger Picture
Putting things into perspective allows you to set “good enough” goals. Instead of wasting time making inconsequential changes, you can appreciate what you’ve achieved so far, focus on learning, and plan on taking effective steps that move you in the direction of your goals.
Talk to Others
You’ll be surprised by what you find. Psychologist Kristen Neff says that part of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity. We all grow up with less than ideal self-worth. We all struggle to feel secure. Knowing this helps in taking off the mask we hide behind, and freeing ourselves to be what we can be.
Mindfulness is a beautiful way of recognizing that there is no perfect path – no perfect breath, no perfect thought, no perfect outcome. The best we can do is recognize when we falter, because we’re human, and gently bring ourselves back on track again.
Life is like that, too. When we let go of grasping too tightly, when we hold life a little lightly, we allow ourselves to unfold and become who we are. Now isn’t that far more breathtaking than the predictability of perfection?
I’d love to hear from you! Do you struggle with perfection? And if you do, what has worked for you –and what hasn’t?