Plus, perfection is beside the point


One of the most insidious effects of perfectionism is its power to shut down creativity and paralyze action. There’s a wonderful book called “Daring Greatly,” by Brené Brown, the Texas sociology professor whose TED talks on vulnerability went viral a few years back. The title comes from this remark by Teddy Roosevelt in a speech he gave in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Fail while daring greatly. That is not a message I received growing up. On the other hand, I doubt my parents raised me to be a cold and timid soul, but that’s the effect of perfectionism. When failure is defined as lack of perfection, and nothing is perfect, failure is inevitable. Since failure perpetuates imperfection, it must be avoided at all cost. This leads in an endless circle of self-doubt, hesitation and paralysis.

From there, it’s a downhill slide into self-judgment, seeking approval, jealousy of others’ accomplishments, and endless self-improvement projects. These are all, in the phrase coined by Charles Eisenstein, habits of separation. They are but a few visible states of being that flow out of the old cultural story that we are separate beings — separate from the natural world and from each other (aka, rugged individualists). Even our consciousness is separate from our own bodies.

As part of living into the new story of interconnection and belonging, then, it follows that perfection and its pursuit won’t be part of the mix. Well, that’s a relief.

How to break this habit of perfectionism, when it is so ingrained I hardly recognize I’m doing it? I don’t have definitive answers, but what works lately is to be in a state of connection, to embody the healing of separation, as much and as often as possible. When in service to something bigger than me, I feel excited and inspired, ready to work with whatever comes. I can be patiently aware of my shortcomings and diligent to improve my craft, while also delighting in my abilities — because all of it seems to come from somewhere outside of me and all around me.

I’ve been discovering that this sort of full commitment to a project, along with a light touch about its form and outcome, gives me access to a sort of courage I haven’t known before. And it is fitting that the word “courage,” derives from the old French word for “heart.” When my heart guides me, I have no problem wading into the arena. It may look from the outside like I’m daring greatly, when inside it feels more like going along on an exhilarating ride that’s so fun I can’t imagine sitting on the sidelines.

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