Perfectionism Is A Trap


I'm not much for astrology but I suspect there may be some truth in the idea that we Capricorns are perfectionists, turning lives into pretzels to get them to be Just So.

Social worker and writer Brene Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection:

Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.

It has taken me a long time to understand this. To understand what is meant by the idea that perfect is the enemy of good enough. I can see some signs of progress.

First, I let go of the illusion that I needed to work harder than just about anyone I knew. It was a badge of honor in some weird (read unhealthy) way. I thought nothing of banging away at it for 70 or 80 hours a week. Weekends were work days without phone interruptions. Work defined me, I believed. (I refused to recognize that work was killing me. And keeping me from connecting in any meaningful way.)

Then, last year, a friend got sick and died, age 50. And then a friend's wife died, age 57. And then someone I know dropped dead on a squash court, age 54.

I said to myself, "Shit. This is a limited gig. And the truth is, I want more time. I want time more than I want money."

So I stopped working weekends and I reduced the number of projects I have going at any one time. I took a pay cut from a major client in exchange for less work.

Biggest thing from all of that was that I started to question and eventually to let go of the idea that my value is solely correlated to my bank balance. That failing to accumulate millions or own two or four or seven properties does not mean I am unsuccessful.

I earn less than I used to, I'm not ashamed to say it. So, the next logical step is to reduce the cost of my life, right? My house feels too expensive and too big, so I've decided to sell it. Next month, everything I own goes into storage for some indefinite period of time. I'm moving in with my sister for the summer. I'm going to map out the next chapter in a new place.

I'm not wrapped up in having the kind of house that impresses. Letting go of the obsession with what others will think is a sign of letting go of perfectionism, Brown and others say. Amen.

And, finally, there's this other kind of strange thing that I've been working on as a way of kicking perfectionism to the curb: getting and staying real on social media.

I have stopped worrying about whether I look like a size 14 in a particular photo. (I do.) Or whether my wrinkles are showing. (They are.) Or whether I should/could admit I spent four years in an emotionally abusive relationship and never told anyone. (I did.)

I post what I want. I tweet what I want. I'm not focused on the Brand called Amy Selwyn. I'm not micro-managing and staging and editing and filtering and adding elements that weren't there and tidying and prettying.

Writer Anne Lamott says perfectionism is the enemy of the people. I think she's right. Pursuing what I believed was the right life, the perfect life, took me headlong into a life of workaholism and abusive relationships. It zapped my energy by requiring me to present a version of myself that was calm, cool, collected and confident at all times. Strong, independent, needing nothing and no one.

I was speaking with a friend yesterday and I was sharing some details about a difficult time in my life. How I survived it.

She said, "You are so strong and so independent. That's why you were able to keep it all to yourself and carry on with such dignity."

"No," I said. "I am vulnerable and frail. But I have always kept the truth to myself. On the outside, I was absolutely fine but nothing could have been further from the truth. I was hurting and I couldn't -- and wouldn't -- tell anyone. In our culture, we often mistake that ability of sealing off our feelings and making them invisible to outsiders as a sign of strength. That's part of the myth. The myth of perfectionism."

With that, I guess I finally laid down my shield.

I'm okay with the less than perfect picture I paint here.

Honesty trumps the Photoshopped blue sky on a rainy afternoon. If it's raining, I'm gonna write about the rain. If I'm feeling shitty or neglected or pissed off as all get out, I'm just going to put it out there.

It is such blessed relief to consciously work to leave behind the myths. To expend the energy on living in the here and now, rather than ceaselessly trying to rewrite the past or create the elusive perfect future.

Ain't it the truth.

Fellow Capricorns, let's let it go.

Photo by Paolobarzman via Flickr

Earlier on Huff/Post50: