I’ve written about perfectionism before but Brené Brown has resurrected this topic for me in a new way. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she writes that “perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” She writes that healthy striving focuses on how I can improve, rather than what will they think. I think this is a wonderful way to summarise a shift that was necessary for me.
In the past few years while recovering from burnout, I have realised where my perfectionism comes from. It comes from looking for approval from the authority figures in my life. It started out with my parents. I thought that if I did really well at school, they might pay more attention to me. Although I did well, they didn’t really notice me, or my results.
In my work, I tried really hard to get everything perfect. I used to get upset when things didn’t go according to plan, ending in tears of frustration. Seeking the approval of others didn’t ever get me to a point where I felt good about myself. I still felt inadequate and kept striving to deliver perfection, even though I got excellent performance reviews.
When my health collapsed at the end of 2014, I had no option but to stop working. I retreated to home so that I could recover. I didn’t. I then arranged a sabbatical so that I could recover. I didn’t. So eventually I resigned from my company and surrendered to the fact that my illness was serious and that I needed to regroup in a number of ways.
It was during this recovery period that I realised that I was still spending a lot of time looking for approval. From shareholders, from my father, from my friends and family. At last it dawned on me that until I love myself and approve of myself, I would never really feel it from anyone else. And the irony is that as soon as I learnt to be kind to myself, I realised that I didn’t need that approval I spent so long searching for. Another benefit is that once I treated myself with love, kindness and respect, my other relationships slowly started to transform.
I can’t tell you exactly how I made this shift and of course, I would never say that I’m fully ‘there’ because it is an ongoing process. I know that meditation has something to do with it. I know that I consciously shifted my self-talk to be more positive. I try hard not to berate myself for mistakes, and to be kind to myself when I mess up. I think knowing that we all fallible is helpful too.
Perfection is something we will never attain. Certainly, I always advocate giving your best in any situation and I try hard to do a good job of whatever I’m tackling. But my best might be horribly flawed in some instances. And in others, it might be pretty good. It’s okay to suck at some things, it really is. I’m trying to teach my children this too, so that they don’t grow up as I did, trying to be perfect.
I’m teaching them to love themselves, to be kind to themselves and to accommodate failure. They are truly intrigued when I make mistakes. I certainly don’t love that part, but it’s a chance to teach them how to be kind, and to model behaviour that I’d like them to adopt.
I don’t think they will feel that frustration I did as a child in not ever getting the approval I looked for. One of my father’s favourite lines was “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” I don’t think he realised how much of an impact that had on me. It’s a pity I spent so many years looking for approval from the very person who should have made it unnecessary. I hope to undo this pattern with my children. To offer them love and approval, unconditionally. And to teach them the importance of self-compassion.