With Christmas rapidly approaching, this will probably be my last post before the holiday. I write and wonder how you all are doing. Is your tree up, with lights and ornaments? Are all your presents purchased? Are any wrapped? Have you baked those cookies you plan to deliver to friends and neighbors?
My own answer to those questions would be no, no, not yet and most certainly no, which is pretty typical for the Kirkpatrick family. Between owning a retail business and working in education (me and the kids), the season doesn’t really feel festive until the shop is closed, school’s out and grades are in. We try to get in the spirit early, but meh – the 20th is when we start gearing up for fun.
Tim and the kids are always great about asking me what I want for Christmas and I always have ideas: boots, clothes, perfume, massages, a vacuum. This year though the Universe sent me a little holiday gift and I didn’t ask for it and it wasn’t what I wanted. It came wrapped up in a book with a sky-blue cover and a little red heart on it by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection.
Sweet title, sweet book, I thought. I was wrong. It is heavy-duty stuff about shame and worthiness, fear, faith and authenticity. I was getting through it though, until I got to page 55 and a chapter called, “Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.” I almost skipped that one, because I am not a perfectionist. I have plenty of compassion for myself. I eat dessert every night. I draw myself hot bubble baths of a regular basis. When I’m just not feeling up to the challenge, I have no problem leaving the house looking like a wreck. However, I read on to see if there were any bits of self-love I was leaving on the table.
I wish I hadn’t. I started to read the chapter and within a page or two, my face started to flush, my heart beat faster. I pressed on, hoping it would go away, but it didn’t. Instead, I added nausea to my list of symptoms, as highlighter and pencil lead flew across the page, marking up sentence after sentence. As she described one perfectionist tendency after another, I became more and more mortified. The worst part was that I was totally unprepared! Like any good perfectionist, I hate to be caught off-guard, unaware, or uninformed about anything, especially my own personal business!
There were two things she clarified that struck me especially.
Perfectionism is not the same as striving to be your best. It is not self-improvement.
“Um, yes it is,” I thought, until she explained: Rather, perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Self-improvement is about moving in the right direction and I work hard at that, but apparently, people with my problem think that if we do everything right, improve enough, we will never feel those things. Those experiences (blame, judgment, shame) are for other people, so instead of taking the risk of doing big things imperfectly, we tend to do less than we are capable of.
Brown calls this life paralysis;
it’s all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self worth is on the line.
I read these ideas and thought of all the book ideas I have stashed in my files, the thousands of pages of written, and unedited work on my computer, the hundreds of speaking leads sitting in a database on my desk, and the teaching job that pays me less than I could make at Starbucks. I live out a perfectionist’s paradox: I might be capable of more, but I’m too afraid to find out I’m not. Instead, I stay where I am, tucked away in my tiny little corner of the world, blogging from my cheetah-print armchair, looking out of my bedroom window at the blue sky and waiting for my family to come home.
Brown names the gifts of imperfection as courage, compassion and connection. I want to experience more of those, but first, I need to accept the gift of imperfection, the simple ability to forgive myself and move on when I make mistakes, instead of feeling like a failure. I need to not just dream big, but actually work on making those dreams come true, despite my fear of ridicule.
My friend Leslie recently asked me to name a word for 2014. Fearlessness, I said, without hesitation, but the only way I can work on that is to first unwrap the gift of imperfection. Imperfections are not inadequacies, Brown writes, and to believe that would set me free.