How to Liberate Yourself From The Chains Of Perfectionism
“Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
People used to call me the Ice Queen years ago, and I took it as a compliment. They thought I had it all together. I drove myself to appear perfect at whatever I did. And not because I felt confident. But to cover up feeling like a complete failure.
I was convinced no one would like the real me.
The one who made mistakes. The one who wasn’t always smart. The one who even – gasp! – goofed off, which was akin to a mortal sin in my family.
Being the typical people-pleasing-hyper-responsible oldest kid, I felt smug because I’d figured out that the way to please everyone was to be perfect. Easy. I got this!
But perfectionism feeds on itself like a snake eating its tail. So the more I undertook, the more opportunities existed for me to screw up. Which skyrocketed both my anxiety that I’d be found less than perfect and my determination to be even more perfect.
An early marriage to an outwardly charming man who turned out to be an endlessly critical emotional abuser was almost inevitable. I’d fallen into a common dynamic of unconsciously choosing a partner who treated me in a way that reinforced how poorly I felt about myself. And after the marriage fell apart, I felt like I had no choice but to atone for an imperfection I couldn’t exactly hide.
So I threw myself into succeeding at a demanding profession while I completed my degree at night and on the weekends. Plus, I was raising my two little boys on my own. I was determined to keep up with all the usual mom stuff like helping them with homework, driving them to activities, and making them nutritious food. No one would be able to fault my boys for being from a broken home. Are you kidding? Nothing broken about my home. It’s perfect!
People admired me, but they didn’t really like me because, let’s face it, who can relate to someone who’s more like a flawless cardboard cutout than a genuine person? I had no close friends but convinced myself I didn’t need them.
I flipped wildly from feeling like a big success to gnawing my lips raw in bed at 3:00 am as I stared into the darkness, strung as tight as an over-tuned guitar.
One day while at work, I started laughing so hard at someone’s witty comment that I was in tears and gasping for breath. Like opening the safety valve on a pressure cooker, I suddenly flipped into uncontrollable, sorrowful sobs. And I was horrified at publicly losing control.
My facade of faultlessness had cracked. But I took another ten years, including a dark 18 months with a cancer scare and my oldest son almost dying, to shake out of perfectionism’s relentless grip.
Looking back, I’ve felt aghast that I stuck with the mirage of perfection until major life catastrophes forced me to simply surrender. Especially once I had a taste of how much happier and more powerful I felt taking even a seemingly small step like saying “I don’t know” out loud when answering a question I would normally criticize myself for not having the answer to. If you ever saw a woman leaping for joy and shouting, “I don’t know!” that was me!
So please don’t wait until your bleakest, most life-shattering moments give you no other choice but to liberate yourself from perfection’s shackles.
Instead, start right now to let yourself be imperfectly, gloriously, lovingly human.
First, Shift To Being And Away From Doing
Be honest; was “Make a to-do list to stop being perfect” one of your first impulses? It was for me.
But as I was floundering around believing an itemized task list was the answer, a dear friend introduced me to a Buddhist lama who first seemed to be an unremarkable middle-aged counselor yet turned my life upside down.
From her, I learned the richness of regularly sitting still and observing what happens within me. Just being. Without judgment, dialog, or analysis. I was gobsmacked to discover how nurtured I felt simply by meditating.
But you don’t need to luck into a lama to get started.
When you start, your mind will leap around like an over-caffeinated monkey. But being still and observant for a while every day calms your entire being. As your chattering mind settles down, you’ll be able to hear and heed your intuitive voice, sharpening your insights and stoking your wisdom.
And when you gain these qualities, your confidence and courage to let your imperfections show naturally increase.
Have The Heart Of A Lioness
Letting go of a deeply ingrained part of your identity requires courage. Who are you if you’re not the perfect person? When I would think about screwing up in public, my stomach would clench into knots so tight you couldn’t have cut through them with an ax.
Fear is normal.
Simply feel it.
Because the calm and confidence you develop through your meditation practice will support you to acknowledge the fear, accept it, and let it go. As many times as you need to.
Then one day you’ll realize the terror has vanished. And when you do, celebrate!
Shine The Light of Loving-Kindness
As the saying goes, charity begins at home. So start out by being as kind to yourself as you would to a beloved child learning a new skill. I’m a little ashamed to admit that being kind to myself was sometimes tough. Especially when my inner harpy shrieked her criticisms and I would wear myself out trying to silence her — yet still half-believing her.
So steady yourself.
Imagine a pink light in your heart while you smile and say, “May I be well and happy.”
When you’ve bathed yourself with loving-kindness, you’ll then be prepared to extend it to others. Picture the pink light in your heart radiating out as though you’re the sun of loving-kindness shining on the world. Smile and wish for everyone to be well and happy.
Then when people react to the changes you’re making, you’ll be on a solid foundation of joyful well-being. You’ll be less likely to take their reactions personally. And you’ll be more likely to respond with curiosity and openness.
Allow Yourself Abundant Time To Change
Openly acknowledge to yourself that letting go of perfection is a substantial change to your being.
As with any transition, you’ll have times when you’ll glide along like a skater on smooth ice and others when you’ll wonder what the hell possessed me to try such a dumb thing anyw-
Oops! Never mind. Time to bring back the kindness!
Realize your progress will be more akin to an upward spiral than a linear path.
And take the time you need.
Check in with yourself during your meditation sessions to see how you’re coming along. Listen to your intuition and let it pace your rate of change so you’re not pushing yourself too hard and risking a setback. Research shows our intuition is a powerful force when we heed it.
Be Ready To Love The Beautiful, Imperfect You
Constantly feeling you have to be perfect is like being locked away in a cramped, joyless, bleak prison.
When you start to embrace your natural human imperfection, it’s as though you unlocked the iron door to step out into the sunshine.
You’ll blink at the brightness, and your first few steps will be shaky.
But then you’ll spread your arms wide and twirl joyfully as you lift your face to the light, bounding with energy that you no longer use trying to be faultless.
And maybe one day you’ll join me while we leap around gleefully shouting, “I don’t know!”
Photo by Rory MacLeod