I was in the car with my dad – I was about 17 years old. I wasn’t in a good place. I had just quit dance and track, two of the things that brought me the most joy, and I spent more time crying than I really did living. With sadness in his eyes, my dad asked me, “What do you enjoy doing? What makes you truly happy?” My eyes filled with tears. I simply could not answer his question.
There was a whole lot of good for me growing up. There was beauty, laughter, and fun; but there was also a lot of misplaced energy – a constant striving for perfection. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that anything less was unacceptable. If I wasn’t perfect, I wouldn’t be worthy of love and belonging. All we really want in this world is love and belonging.
Fearing that people may come to see my lack of perfection, I stopped showing up. I QUIT! I quit track because I didn’t win. I quit dance because I wasn’t front and center. I quit writing because the words stopped coming with ease. I quit dreaming because the dreams just seemed too far out of reach. If I could’ve quit school, I would have quit that too. But I couldn’t, so I excelled. The pressure of perfection was a crushing weight that my young soul couldn’t bear. It was a thief that robbed me of the ease and freedom of my adolescence and young adulthood.
This is a story that I am afraid is way too common for young women today. (I speak for women because I know their story, however, I am aware that this pressure applies to many men, too). And it starts so young. According to research done by Girlguilding UK, 25% of seven to ten year old girls in her study felt the need to be perfect (Topping, 2016). Jan Bauer, author of Alcoholism and Women: The Background and Psychology states, “Superwoman is a cliché now, but it is extremely dangerous. I’ve seen such a perversion of feminism, where everything becomes work: raising children, reading all the books, not listening to their instincts. The main question is: What self are they trying to turn off? These women have climbed so high that when they fall, they crash – and alcohol’s a perfect way to crash” (Johnston, 2013). The perfect mother. The perfect wife. The perfect sibling. The perfect friend. The most beautiful. The skinniest. The most perfect in pictures. The most perfect at work. And does it all with a smile. Perfectionism is devastatingly destructive, leading not only to addiction, but also to other forms of self-medication, crippling anxiety or depression, and can have potentially deadly outcomes.
According to Brené Brown, a research professor who has studied shame and vulnerability for more than a decade, perfectionism is one of the main three ways that people protect themselves from getting hurt. She says that we struggle with perfectionism in the areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame; it is merely a form of armor (Okura, 2013). Brown says, “So here’s the secret… When perfection is driving, shame is always riding shotgun – and fear is the annoying backseat driver.” By looking perfect, living perfect, working perfect, we believe that we can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule, therefore eradicating pain. But perfectionism doesn’t breed joy. Authenticity does. Vulnerability does. But as Brown states, “Authenticity is a practice and you choose every day – sometimes every hour of every day.”
So how do we get there?
Well, I do yoga.
When it comes to my battle with perfection versus authenticity, my mat has been my best teacher. Each day, I crave my time on my mat, because this is the time and place where I can show up raw, vulnerable and real. I can bring exactly what I have, and that is enough. I am not perfect. I am not the best. I am not the strongest, most flexible, most beautiful, most talented. I am me!
I am conscious and pay attention to the physical and emotional sensations pulsing through my veins. Sometimes my flight instinct kicks in, and I’m tempted to numb out, escape, RUN. But then the teacher kindly reminds me to breathe through. Sometimes my fight instinct kicks in, and I begin an inner monologue, berating myself for not being good enough, strong enough, flexible enough, while also cussing out the teacher for asking so damn much of me. And then once again, I’m reminded to breathe, and to notice without attachment or judgment. I’m given permission to struggle, to hurt, to see the tiny progress that comes from falling flat on my face, and to celebrate those small victories that may not be noticed by anyone else. I sharpen tools on my mat, which I can then take with me back into the real world, in order to protect myself from those who ask me to be anything other than HUMAN. I learn to LOVE myself on my mat, so that I can love myself off my mat as well.
We are flooded with an image of perfection that doesn’t exist, blinding us to the reality of progress, and to the beauty of failure; ridding us of the potential for growing, dreaming, and BEING. Nothing is ever beyond criticism.
Howard, P. J. (2011, September 16). Are We Addicted to the Idea of Perfection? Retrieved November 09, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-howard-phd/beauty-and-wisdom_b_954404.html
Johnston, A. D. (2013, October 15). Alcohol as Escape From Perfectionism. Retrieved November 09, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/alcohol-as-escape-from-perfectionism/280482/
Okura, L. (2013, October 05). Brené Brown: Perfectionism Is The 20-Ton Shield We Use To Protect Ourselves (VIDEO). Retrieved November 09, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/05/brene-brown-perfectionism-shame-oprah_n_4045358.html
Topping, A. (2016, October 03). Girls as young as 7 feel pressure to be pretty – body confidence study. Retrieved November 09, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/04/girls-as-young-as-7-feel-pressure-to-be-pretty-body-confidence-girlguiding-study-reveals