Did you know that perfect actually means “complete”, as in finished or whole? It became a measuring stick for ‘excellence’ in the 13th century, and more recently, that stick has become a battering ram for critics – both external and internal.
perfection (n.) (etymology)
from Latin perfectionem (nominative perfectio) “a finishing, completing, perfection,” noun of action from past-participle stem of perficere “to accomplish, finish, complete”
Perfection simply means complete. We add the judgment.
For example, ‘that flower is absolute perfection’, means it is whole, complete. The flower has done its flower thing. We then add a layer of evaluation that nature herself doesn’t. We appreciate the beauty of the flower, and then we judge it against its neighbor that, perhaps, was so attractive to a bug it now has a hole in it, or the one that bloomed a few days prior and is now fading. Each of them is absolute perfection because each is doing exactly what they came to do – blooming, sharing its pollen, reproducing and feeding the ecosystem. Perfect.
What if we could all fully bloom, do what we came to do, embody our whole-ness, add our bounty to the ecosystem and suspend our judgment throughout the process? (LOL. like that’s the easiest thing).
For years now I’ve been reminding myself that ‘perfect’ simply means ‘complete’ every time I start to feel the ‘not-enough-ness’ and judgment that would invariably accompany what I’ve come to call my ‘disease of perfectionism’. This internal reminder became my practice to help me suspend judgment and begin to see the world as it was, instead of how I was judging it to be.
Before I started this practice I had a very vocal inner critic. Anything it decided wasn’t done well enough (Maren you should have made sure she submitted those EARLIER) set it off. Anything that didn’t measure up to some random expectation (Maren, you’re not smart enough, thin enough, experienced enough, etc.) or something someone else did (Maren, Susie does that better than you) got me an earful. Sometimes just because I was already having a bad day would bring on an onslaught of the itty bitty shitty committee.
I started calling my perfectionism a disease because, like a disease, it didn’t care if I was having a bad day, and often bad days would cause flare ups. Diseases have an agenda of their own, my perfectionism did, too. It felt like I had no control over it and it kept getting in my way – this is what finally woke me up. When I realized perfectionism was actually hurting me, not helping me, I decided I had enough.
I used to wear my perfectionism like a badge, ‘oh, I’m a perfectionist’, but the perfectionist was holding me back from fully living life, going all in on my gifts and strengths and embracing the beauty of being human.
If my energy is being spent judging myself and others, what do I have left to put into the things I really want? What do I have left to put into my own blooming? Into why I’m here?
The internal churning of the pressure to be perfect keeps our energy tied up and distracts us from knowing AND using the very gifts we’ve been given, the unique gifts that we each have that not only complete us, but on which our teams, our businesses and even our society relies.
“I’m not distracted, I know what I’m good at.”
That’s what my clients tell me, and then we get to work and they realize that part of the perfectionism they experience is because they are NOT embracing their gifts.
In school we were taught to focus on our weaknesses. If you were good at reading and bad at math, work on math. If you were good at science and bad at reading, work on reading. The lesson – put aside what comes easily and work on the things you don’t like. Uggg. Talk about a recipe for mediocrity. (It actually was – our school system was developed during the industrial age when they needed people to follow rules and be easily controlled – see Seth Godin’s manifesto on education, “Stop Selling Dreams”)
All of this training means we learned to squash our gifts. The chatty student was told to sit down and stop bothering everyone. The bookworm was told to stop reading and be social. We were taught we had to do it all ourselves and there was pressure to be good at everything.
In that environment, how do you learn where your gifts really lie? “Don’t be who you are most naturally, focus on what you are not good at, don’t brag about what comes easily, and learn all things equally.” None of this celebrates you, your unique perfection (wholeness) or any of the amazing beauty you were meant to bring to the table.
No wonder we tend to hyper fixate on our weaknesses and overlook, and often hide, our strengths. Our current system pushes our gifts into never-never land, straight into the shadow. What does this mean?
Imagine standing outside in bright sunlight. You cast a shadow. In psychology the shadow is the unconscious aspect of our personality. It’s parts of us that don’t fit with who we think we are, so we disassociated from them. Those parts don’t ‘go away’, they come with us everywhere we go and are either resisted or projected, or most often both.
Because we were taught that our gifts and strengths were ‘bad’ – ie put that away, don’t do that, be productive, stop talking, etc., – those very gifts and strengths became qualities, impulses, and emotions we tuck away and into our shadow.
Our shadow is not evil or bad, although pop culture has sold us this myth. It’s really just the unintegrated parts of ourselves we’ve denied and rejected, parts we actually need. They are not just handy, they are essential.
Exploring our shadow and integrating the elements we’ve tucked there not only helps us counter the learned perfectionism, it puts energy back into our system, rejuvenates us from the inside out, it makes us infinitely better leaders AND is a key to healing our divided world.
Putting It Into Practice
“That’s great Maren, where do I start?”
I usually read articles like this, get inspired and excited about change and then lose motivation because it’s all theory. So let’s talk about practice. This is where cultivating a spirit of curiosity and asking deep and meaningful questions comes in – it will actually do the work for us. We don’t need to know what we’ve tucked into the shadow, we DO need to get curious.
There are three parts to this practice 1. Stop 2. Drop 3. Reflect
- Stop – tell your brain that whenever the perfectionist shows up you’re going to consciously notice it. We can’t do anything until we become aware. Whenever the perfectionist shows up, STOP, notice it and acknowledge it. When the inner critic starts its rant, you get to become an observer. You are not trying to stop the rant itself, or change it, you are stopping yourself from identifying with it and noticing it as a separate entity. I will often think to myself, ‘interesting, look at you go’ as I listen to, and watch, my inner critic. I’ll also notice if I feel it anywhere in particular in my body.
- Drop – drop all the stories and just be present. I remind myself that ‘perfect’ simply means ‘complete’ and I completely drop out of judgment. The inner critic judges, you don’t. Your perfectionism is likely telling you a story about not being good enough in some way. Great, it’s time to get curious. Those ‘not good enough parts’ are likely things that live in your shadow. You would not notice them unless they existed in you. This is where it gets fun. You’ve separated yourself from the critic and are starting to explore your gifts and strengths! Where did the story your critic is telling come from? What are some alternative stories? What might be a more empowering story for this moment?
- Reflect – this part is critical. Be sure to have someplace to note your insights, tiggers and things that you’ve noticed. You might choose to jot down “10 alternative stories I could tell myself” or “the gift I found in my shadow” or even “I have no idea what I learned and I did manage to stop and observe.” It’s so easy to have an ‘aha’ moment and then lose its power and potential because it gets buried in the busyness of the day.
You are the most important asset you have. Investing in yourself, both internally and externally, will reap huge rewards. Being able to respond and reclaim your gifts, strengths and energy transforms your life, and its ripple effect is one of the things that points to a Soulful Leader.