The courage of imperfection

Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.
– Bréné Brown

Apart from being a famous and appreciated book Dr. Prof. Bréné Brown, ‘the courage of imperfection’ has become sort of a brain anchor for me. I have anchored it in the lobes of my brain…and there it stays. Sometimes it has no function. The perfect cruiseship (yes, yes, not a tiny boat, that won’t do for a perfectionist) lays calmly at the shore. Passengers can get on, and off again and they are even allowed to spill their drinks on the floor and dirty the sheets. But sometimes the ship wants to set sail for the sea. Fast and hard, on the perfect waves in the perfect sea, with a perfect landscape and then… followed by a perfect crash into an iceberg. Disillusion, anger, sadness.

That’s what happens more than once. Especially when there’s a busyness at sea. Suddenly the blinders go on and everything has to be put back under control. There has to be worked out, more clients need to be gained, the work has to be better, the house (or the boat ? ) needs to be clean and tidy, the kids need to well-behaved and please: no spilling your drinks! Those are usually not the best trips. The periods when everything is allowed to be a bit more loose, when the trip is more important than the destination, the clothes are allowed to be dirty and the children too… that’s when adventures are born.

And still it’s so damn hard to detox from perfectionism. What happened to us? We crave the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect partner. We want to be the best employee, the best mom or dad. The best and coolest friend. Adventurous and also healthy, yes, of course. What we don’t see is that we miss the adventure underway…

For years it was the standard answers applicants gave when you asked them what their weaker points are. “Goh… I’m kind of a perfectionist”. If I had one euro for every time I heard that during my time in recruitment… I could buy myself that (obviously) perfect yacht now. It seemed like job seekers secretly hoped that it was kind of a good thing, perfectionism. It’s not. Perfectionism is destructive and addictive, because it’s actually a way of ‘wrong’ self-protection. It allows us to not have to show our real selves. It’s like a harness we wear. We try to look perfect, to live the perfect life, to do everything perfectly, so that we spare ourselves feelings of shame, rejection and resentment. Perfectionists attach their self-worth to the opinions of others and get disappointed time and time again, because hey (big surprise): perfection doesn’t exist. We are striving for an unreachable goal. Cause we don’t have any impact on how others see us…

Often perfectionism is also seen in a much too narrow sense. It’s totally possible to be a perfectionist in one role (ex. at work) and not in another role (ex. in the household). You might want to be a perfect parent, but not have the patience to organize a party to the smallest details or figure out an Excel sheet. Moreover perfectionism only sometimes results in overperforming, just as often it leads to underperforming, common characteristics being procrastination and fear of failing. Not starting something out of fear of it never being good enough (read: comply with the your own and the expectations of others). Perfectionists are also excellent at pushing, focusing on results, all or nothing thinking. Delegating can be hard, because what you do yourself, you do better (and/or faster).

In short: perfectionism is pretty hard but also, contradictory I know, easy. It’s much easier to put on your harness than to go on the street naked. Just, as you are. With faults and dirty feet. A stain on your shirt and a lot of question marks in your head. It takes guts to show yourself for who you are. In all your vulnerability and completely on display for the judgement of others over the real you.

Not all perfectionists end up in a burn-out, but we do encounter plenty of them. They are often working, sporting, city-tripping, added value seeking, socially engaged mom’s and dad’s. Convinced of the idea that striving for perfection in every domain will bring them happiness, satisfaction and…love. Because that’s what it’s all about…

These days my anchor starts working better and better. I chose for myself more often and I try to comply less with the expectations of others. I do my job with heart and soul and sometimes I make a big mistake from which I am happy to learn. I eagerly took parenting advice from a colleague: ‘go for the 20-60-20 rule: 20% of the time be a perfect mum, 60% of the time be just okay, 20% of the time this could really be better. Especially allowing that last one gave me piece of mind. I only work out when I like it and sometimes I disappoint a friend. And I wander around. Just because sometimes I can.

And…I’m proud of it.

 It takes courage to say yes to rest and play, in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol
– Bréné Brown

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