“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” ~ E.E. Cummings
I have always known this, but it just really struck me the other day – being a human being is hard work. I have mentioned before that I listen to a lot of podcasts and many them are related to personal growth, human potential and health/wellbeing/medicine. Podcasts are a great way to expand our outlook and hone our listening skills, but quite frankly, sometimes they can be exhausting. Let me explain. When we start to gather the habits of successful people, routines of great minds, and amass even more knowledge on how to be your best self, it can be overwhelming.
Just really stop and think about it for a moment. Think about all of the things you should/need to do everyday, every month, every year. Well, as a physician, I am well versed in many lifestyle shoulds, such as eating well, engaging in physical activity, not smoking, etc etc. However, our human existence relies on so many other essential facets such as buying groceries, managing finances, paying bills, looking after homes, again etc etc. When you have children, and pets, the list continues to grow, and of course, we all want to foster healthy relationships too.
I get it, I am human too and have spent many years learning how to help people live a good life. However, it is certainly easy to see how we can be hard on ourselves and even turn to self-destructive behaviours and poor decision making when all of the ‘shoulds’ become too much at times.
One of my living life super-heroes, Brené Brown, has researched, written and talked about so much of the span of human behavior and all the things that just get in the way. One of the many pearls of wisdom she shares is around perfectionism.
Is perfectionism a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ attribute to you?
I pose this question because I think most of us can that agree it has both positive and negative connotations. As Brené Brown says an interview with Oprah, “We are all comfortable with saying ‘I am a little perfectionistic’, which is code for ‘I do things really well’”. However, she cautions that perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we hope will keep us from being hurt.
Brené also separates perfectionism, which is founded on “what will people think”, from healthy striving which is internally focused. She describes the former as follows – “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
Being perfectly imperfect
Okay, so being human isn’t easy and being perfect is just not possible, so let’s do our best and be perfectly imperfect. We can start with the following 2 ways to be kinder to ourselves:
1) Practice self-compassion – My favorite illustration of practicing self-compassion comes from Dr. Kristin Neff’s work. At its core, it involves asking the question “how you would treat a good friend when they are struggling?”. Next time you send an work email and it has spelling mistakes, you miss yet another workout, you can’t resist the urge to have another piece of cake, or you have to make a decision where people may judge you, stop and think, “how would I speak to a close friend in this situation?”.
2) Perspective taking – Easier said than done, but this forces us to see our situation as others might, or how we might view the situation if it didn’t belong to us. I find this to be a powerful way to alleviate the stress and anxiety when things don’t go our way, or aren’t perfect, but it is difficult to get into the mode when we are in a “shame spiral” as Brené would say. One step might be to talk to someone else, preferably that you trust, about what is happening. Brené says that “shame cannot survive when spoken”. Not only does saying it aloud given some much needed perspective, talking it out helps us view our situation in another way.
Anxiety BC – How to Overcome Perfectionism
Brené Brown – The Power of Vulnerability
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden: USA.