My first memories of perfection seeking seem to be around 8 or 9 years old, when I started competing for the class’ top grades with another classmate. I was not a mediocre pupil until then, but I remember vividly disliking my classmate for being so damn perfect and thinking to myself that I really had to step up. None of this was motivated by my parents or caretakers, who had no idea about my secret objective. Nope, I just started imposing the stress of constant comparison and making failure unacceptable, to myself, entirely on my own. And it stuck for years. Retrospectively, it is no surprise that this ‘habit’ started amidst a very chaotic time for our little family, when each of my parents were grasping with chronic and traumatic health issues, leading to emotional outbursts. Now that I am a mom, I can clearly witness how young kids naturally tend to try and ‘fix’ their parents’ problems, thinking their own behaviour must somehow be responsible for some parts or all of the parents’ despair. Of course, none of that could be further from the truth… But I digress.
Twenty years later, my mind was still finding huge relief in the controlling narrative that if I were to look and be perfect (or at least strive to), I might avoid negative opinions and criticism, and would finally feel better about myself. But as I discovered through Brené Brown’s work, perfectionism is in fact highly toxic.
“Perfectionism is a [self-destructive and addictive] shield. It’s 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 flight.”[i]
However protective I thought it would be, chasing perfection made it impossible for me to go through any trial and errors process, or even to celebrate the little or big wins that came my way. It imprisoned me in a continuous loop of negative self-talk & imposter feelings, that kept my self-esteem chronically low, therefore reinforcing the need to be ‘at least’ thinner and fitter to be vaguely acceptable to others, and feeding once again the ongoing vicious circle.
So how do you get out of this? Although cognitive behavioural therapy really nailed the last screw on my perfectionism’s coffin, a few simple changes below helped me reassess the way I consider and speak to myself. Today, these habits remain ingrained in my everyday life or whenever anxiety creeps up.
1/ Develop a habit of self-compassion instead of self-harm. Develop ways to talk to yourself like you would to a sister or a friend, or a young child. When they try something new and fail, would you tell them: ‘Oh my God, you are so useless and pathetic, I knew you’d fail! You should never try again! What an embarrassment you are’? Nope, me neither. So it might be time to stop doing it to yourself.
2/ Dissociate your thoughts from your actions. When negative thoughts arise, don’t feel like you need to ‘counter’ them with extra tight control over your body/diet/life. Acknowledge this is what they are: JUST. THOUGHTS. Journaling these and the feelings that arise around them, before letting them go, can be of great help in that process too.
3/ When you are fighting waves of anxiety fuelled by the abandon of your protective shield, remember you can find a refuge in self-care practices. Anything that brings you comfort or allows you to lose yourself in an activity will do. And if you are short on time or ideas, or all else fails, ten deep breaths seem to always bring back perspective and calm to me, whatever circumstances I face.
4/ Start a habit of listing daily gratitudes in a notebook, on your phone, to your spouse or ask the whole family to list their gratitudes each night at the dinner table. Gratitudes slowly work towards establishing a more positive, kind and compassionate ‘Progress not perfection’ mindset.
Remember that whatever you do, you have absolutely no control whatsoever on other people’s opinions. It is time to put your own feelings and opinions at the centre of your preoccupations. Big mental changes like these take time and practice. It won’t happen overnight but leaving perfectionism behind is, as I am now truly convinced of it, completely possible.
[i] Brene Brown, the gifts of imperfection