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September 9, 2011

Learning to Embrace Imperfection

By Tara Ballard

Last week, I posted a comment on the Jillfit Facebook page describing my unplanned cheat meal of a burger and fries.  We got a great response and based on all the positive feedback, looks like it was an important message to get out there: we are all human, we all make mistakes, we are all imperfect.

The funny thing is if the same thing happened a year or so ago, there is no way I would have posted my unplanned cheat. The shame and guilt of cheating on my nutrition plan would have sent me into a tailspin of self-loathing and what I like to call “I suck” mode. Here are some examples of “I suck” mode:

  • “I can’t believe I ate that burger and fries…I suck…I can’t even stick to my nutrition plan
  • “I didn’t place in my competition…I suck”
  • “Why can’t I be more like ____ (fill in blank)…I suck”
  • “I’ll never be smart enough, rich enough, fast enough, attractive enough, thin/fit enough, etc…I suck”

Does any of this sound familiar? Then you are probably a perfectionist like me. I used to think being a perfectionist was a good thing. I mean, it’s good to want to always do your best and please those around you, right? As it turns out, not so much.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of self-exploration lately, and in my search for books I could relate to, I found The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown. I haven’t finished it yet, as I am taking my time, re-reading certain sections, and making sure the words really sink in. This self-exploration stuff is HARD, especially for a computer geek who tends to think in binary: ones/zeroes, black/white, happy/sad, yes/no, perfect/imperfect. I just don’t do touchy-feely, but I digress…

In the book, Brené uses such words as self-love and self-compassion. I’m not talking about self-love in the sense of conceitedness (“I’m so beautiful and I can’t stop looking at myself in the mirror”), I’m talking about accepting yourself, flaws and all, and loving who you are for, well, who you are.  Self-compassion is about being gentle with yourself when you mess up, or when things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to.

This all sounds great in theory, but I quickly learned that I am sadly lacking in both self-love and self-compassion, largely due to my perfectionist personality. This is where it gets good, folks. Again, I always thought being a perfectionist was a positive thing, but these two paragraphs from the book completely changed that thought process:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is 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 taking flight”

“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think?”

Whoa…to say these two paragraphs were a wake-up call is an understatement. When I really thought about it, most of my time spent trying to be “perfect” really wasn’t for me. Instead, it was because I have an overwhelming need to please. This need for acceptance and belonging, along with the gut-wrenching fear of letting people down, has dictated countless decisions in my life…decisions that may or may not have been the right ones for ME. “Please. Perform. Perfect.” Yep, that pretty much sums me up!

So, how am I changing this perfectionism thing I have going on into healthy striving? It is definitely a process, and I find myself analyzing every single decision I make, everything from business/work decisions to financial decisions to fitness/health decisions. These next two paragraphs have helped me with this analysis – they describe someone who is struggling with their weight, but the concept can easily be applied to any area of life:

“Perfectionism self-talk: ‘Ugh. Nothing fits. I’m fat and ugly. I’m ashamed of how I look. I need to be different than I am right now to be worthy of love and belonging.”

Healthy-striving self-talk: ‘I want this for me. I want to feel better and be healthier. The scale doesn’t dictate if I’m loved and accepted. If I believe that I’m worthy of love and respect now, I will invite courage, compassion and connection into my life. I want to figure this out for me. I can do this.”

I can’t say that I have it all figured out, but I am working on more healthy-striving and less perfectionism. I am also learning that in practicing self-love and self-compassion, I am able to connect with people on a level I never could before. As my Perfectionist Shield comes down, I am learning we are all pretty much in the same boat – we all have our own insecurities, hopes, fears, dreams, etc.). Sharing in that bond of humanity is pretty cool. (NOTE from Jill: the ironic thing about all of this is that even when we think we are practicing “perfection” others can see right through it into our insecurities, so we might as well come clean anyway :))

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a point to ponder, once again from the book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

With Love and Imperfection, Tara

More from Tara: Getting Real: Tara’s Ex-Exercise Addiction
More from Tara: What’s Age Got To Do With It?

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