Perfect Imperfection

I won’t even try to guess how many people have watched one or both of Brené Brown’s TED talks. (If you haven’t, be sure to check them out!) I first encountered her TEDx Houston talk a year or so ago, and almost immediately ordered a copy of I Thought It Was Just Me. I never got the whole way through it, I admit, due partly to circumstance and partly to the book being more dense than I expected it to be. Then I found out about The Gifts of Imperfection, and got that one for my Kindle. I finally started reading it while I was on retreat and I’ve been inhaling it ever since, and relating to something on just about every page.

If you’d asked me in January of last year if I thought I was a perfectionist, I’d have replied with a resounding NO. “Look at my house,” I’d have said. “If I were a perfectionist, it’d be clean all the time and everything would be in its perfect place. Surely you jest.” Then I started Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching™ training, and discovered that there are a lot of ways that perfectionism can show up in our lives, many of which don’t look like perfectionism at first glance. For some, it’s that need for the towels to line up exactly when you fold them, but for others, it’s the fear of starting a creative project because it won’t be good enough, or working on that project but never letting anyone see it because they might not think it’s perfect. And it became clear very quickly—uncomfortably so—that most of us are perfectionists in some way, and that most definitely includes me. I may not be Sally Albright, who takes ten minutes to order dessert in When Harry Met Sally, but I have moments when I relate to her “I just want it the way I want it.”

Here’s an example: the fastest way to get a rise out of my perfectionism is for me to attempt to do anything with my hair. There’s a reason why I take the wash-and-go approach (I don’t ever even dry it), and it’s because anything else is likely to end in tears. I should note that this rule usually does not apply to other people; they can do brilliant things with my hair. I, on the other hand, become all thumbs as soon as anything more than a headband is involved, probably because I lose all sense of perspective (my ideal morphs into something that would require several hours and at least one Photoshop jockey), and it just gets worse the harder I try. Something is always out of place, not cooperating, or otherwise flying in the face of my overinflated idea of how it should be. As a result, my relationship with my hair is like Global Thermonuclear War: the only way to win is not to play.

This phenomenon extends to getting a haircut, too. I got one on Saturday and spent a good chunk of the weekend obsessing over whether it was short enough or I should go back to have more taken off. And let me be clear, this is done by that urgent, chattering voice that must take speed when I’m not looking, and it yaps on and on. “Are you sure it’s right? Maybe it should be a little shorter. He said he only took an inch off after four months and that just can’t be right and it feels longer in the back than it should when you wash it and that’s weird, too, and I think you should think about going back because I really think it’s not the way you wanted it and it’s not riiiiight!!!” Needless to say, it gets pretty noisy in my head when perfectionism comes to call.

If you’ve never heard that voice in your head, I am impressed by your equanimity. I suspect, though, that most, if not all, of us have heard it, and we’ve all let it drive us nuts at one point or another. It’s worse when we don’t recognize it as the voice of perfectionism, of course, because until we make that connection, we think that voice is real and that we have to listen to it. As we try to meet its impossible expectations, it just takes us for a ride on the crazy train. The great thing is that we don’t have to listen, and awareness is the key to toning that voice down to a dull roar. When you realize that perfectionism has reared its ugly little head, you know it’s time to recognize it and respond accordingly, giving your calm, wise voice more weight.

I’m still working on this myself, so I know there’s no magic bullet, but I also know that over time, the voice of sanity and reason gets louder. I’m sure that the whiny chatterbox will always be with me, but I’m happy to report that this afternoon, the reasonable part of me finally looked in the bathroom mirror and said, quite calmly, “I know you’re just trying to make sure I got what I paid for, but you know that last time he cut it too short, and it took about almost a month to grow to the length you wanted. What you have is exactly what you wanted, and that is wonderful.” And just like that, the chatterbox ran off to hide until it finds its next excuse to get its knickers in a twist.

4 thoughts on “Perfect Imperfection”

  1. I hear you – perfectionism can wear a lot of disguises – me too! Great post, and thanks for reminding me how much I love Bréne Brown’s work too!

  2. Thanks, Paula. I was so shocked when I realized I really WAS a perfectionist, after spending so many years being so sure I wasn’t, trying to buck trends, etc. It’s a nasty little bugger!

    Brené’s work is fantastic, and seems to keep getting better!

  3. I struggle w/putting my perfectionism aside while I write. I had to learn to do that in order to ever get anything done. There are days when I sit down, write a sentence, revise it, delete it, write a new one — and those are days when I know I won’t get any writing done. It’s not because the story isn’t there, it’s because I won’t let myself just write. As long as I’m moving forward I’m being successful, even if I overuse the word “soft” in a chapter. I have to reel in the perfectionist and only let her out when editing.
    Great post.

  4. Hi, Erin! Thanks for stopping by.

    I have trouble with perfectionism in writing sometimes, too. Not all the time, but some of it. I think I’ve reached a point where I can tell which things are small enough to be fixable right away, and which will be a can of worms if I dig in right away. (This is as I’m writing, of course, no once I’m finished, though I do prioritize somewhat the same way.) I always had trouble when they’d tell us in school that we had to write first and edit second, because things would bug me if I didn’t take care of them right away.

    One coaching trick you might want to try when perfectionism is at full force is to take a few minutes to deliberately write something small and crappy. (Poetry works really well.) Say, ten lines of something ridiculous. Then have a good laugh at it and see if your perfectionism backs off a bit. If you try it, let me know how it goes!

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