I came across a fantastic post on the topic of perfectionism yesterday on Blogher called 12 Tips to Becoming Your Authentic Self by Brené Brown that I’ve been pondering ever since. As someone who has been a perfectionist since I was a small child, this post really struck home in a most uncomfortable way despite the fact that I’ve been working on this tendency of mine for 20 years or more. I’ve heard much of what she had to say about the costs of perfectionism before (although reminders are always helpful), but there were also some new “aha” moments, including the idea that perfectionism is an inauthentic way to live!
One of those “aha” moments came as she talked about perfectionism being a shield. It’s really about trying to protect myself from criticism, negativity, and anger from others. But as she points out, like most perfectionists, it runs even deeper. My entire self-worth is based on what I do and how I perform, so doing anything less than perfect is a blow to my very self-worth. It’s no wonder I work so hard at perfectionism! Without it, I truly believe that I have no value.
Ironically, as one of the commenters pointed out, perfectionists tend to be exposed to more criticism than the average person because people come to have ever higher expectations of them. This was another “aha” moment for me. I’ve always struggled to understand why I so often feel like I get more criticism than people who don’t seem to be trying nearly as hard. Sure, some of that may be skewed perception, but the likelihood that people simply come to set higher standards for me than for others and then are more disappointed when I can’t meet those standards is strong—and does much to explain the tendencies I observe.
It is easy to see how this can become a negative spiral. In the current work situation I am in that is causing me so much grief, this understanding of why criticism is so devastating to me helps to explain why I have been under such stress. I kept working harder and harder to try to be perfect so that I could once again prove that I have value, but this just raised the bar and generated even more criticism. These continued blows to my self-worth have worn me out.
I think it’s been even more difficult for me right now because everything else in my life is in a state of such flux that I feel like so much of what I am doing is new to me. As Brené points out, doing something new is especially stressful for a perfectionist because it’s nearly impossible to get things right when you’re just learning how to do them. As she says in her post, “It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.” Unfortunately, I’ve also been repeatedly and continually thrown into new responsibilities, demands, and situations at work at the same time that I have been going through so much change in my personal life, which means that I don’t have any part of my life where I can feel like I’m truly doing a good job at something I know how to do and have done before. Everything is new, everything is a stretch, and everything is a risk. This inability to try to shore up my flagging self-worth in any area of my life in a time filled with so much change and so much criticism and so much failure has been incredibly devastating. Frankly, I think that even a non-perfectionist would have struggled with all that has been thrown at me in the last year, but as a perfectionist, it’s almost more than I can bear.
Clearly, if I am going to be able to successfully face the next round of challenges that is coming my way, I not only need to find a way to rebuild some sense of self-worth, I need to do it in a way that does not involve my performance because I’m not going to reach a place of having the experience and knowledge I need to do anything well for quite a long time yet. I need to break this cycle of perfectionism if I am going to have any shot at creating the life I want to live. The problem is that I don’t know how to do that. I can implement her tips—especially her last one about treating myself with more compassion—but if my self-worth does not come from what I am able to accomplish, where should it come from? That’s the missing key for me. Self-worth must be built on some foundation. What other foundation is there but what I do? It’s easy to say that it should come from who I am instead of what I do. But how does one demonstrate who they are if not by what they do?
Clearly more pondering on this subject is needed—to be followed by a whole hell of a lot of hard work. I’m on the threshold of taking the biggest risk of my life, and doing that with no sense of self-worth will defeat me before I even start if I can’t turn this negative spiral around.
This whole business of having every foundation pulled out from under me is getting old. I realize the time in the chrysalis is all about being dissolved so that I can be reformed anew, but unlike the caterpillar, I am not protected during this process with a hard shell or the freedom to do nothing but undergo the process. I could really use a safe place to hide for a little while about now.