Brendon Towle Coaching

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The Perfectionism Trap

I remember when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I was playing catch with a Nerf football with my dad in the front yard. We were tossing the ball back and forth, and he threw one that was higher than he intended. I jumped up, and just barely got the tip of my finger on it, and it of course glanced off my finger, kept going, and bounced away. My dad’s comment in response was, “If you can touch it, you can catch it.” In other words, “You can (and should) be doing this perfectly.”

This stuck with me for years. Even though it wasn’t what he intended, the lesson that I internalized was that perfection, the first time, was the bare minimum standard for acceptable performance. Further, I internalized the lesson that doing things perfectly was the way to make people like me, and thus for me to feel accepted and loved. In case it’s not clear, this is a whole heaping helping of crazy with crazy sauce on top.

If you don’t know how to do something yet, by definition you don’t know how to do it perfectly. But, here I was, trying to do things (everything) perfectly the very first time. It didn’t help that my dad also told me, “People say ‘Practice makes perfect.’ That’s not quite true. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

(He’s gotten better, btw.)

And, although perfection in others is occasionally aspirational, it’s far more likely to be annoying or repulsive. This isn’t just my opinion, btw; it’s backed by research. Brené Brown talks about this in Atlas of the Heart; in summarizing the research, she says:

[Perfectionism research] shows that people who are high on the perfectionistic traits scale behave in ways that cause perceived and actual exclusion/rejection by others. In other words, my perfectionism drives me to show up in ways that lead people to push me away. (Emphasis mine.)

For example, I’m not perfect at anything, but I’m a very good, very fast reader. Did my reading ability win me any friends as a child? No, no it did not.

I was a late bloomer athletically, and one day (around 15) I suddenly figured out how to run to and catch a thrown football. I was playing pickup football with a dozen or so friends, and had one game where I caught everything thrown my direction, including one pretty spectacular over-the-shoulder catch. I got some kudos for that catch, but then some slightly sarcastic “You just catch everything thrown to you, don’t you?” comments. Did that experience make me more friends and miraculously popular? No, no it did not. (More on this later.)

Brené Brown also talks about how perfectionism is shame-based. It’s not about wanting to become better, it’s about wanting to control what other people think about me. Insidiously, it’s also about wanting to control how I feel based on my perceptions about what other people think about me.

But, this chain of thinking (If I behave perfectly, I can make other people think well of me, and when I perceive them thinking well of me, I can avoid the feelings of shame) is broken at every single step. Let’s see how:

  1. First, just like everyone else, I am a flawed human being. Although I may occasionally perform a single isolated task perfectly (I did in fact catch every ball thrown to me in that one game), repeated perfection is just not possible.
  2. Second, I have no control what other people think of me. On the occasions where I did perform perfectly (or very very well) as a child, that did not, in fact, have the results in other people’s opinion of me that I was expecting.
  3. Third, and maybe most perniciously, my perceptions of what other people are thinking and feeling, and why, are horribly unreliable. Other people don’t always express what they’re thinking (or maybe don’t express it to me). And, it turns out that other people, even those people who are really close to me, spend the large majority of their time thinking about things other than me, and so when they have a feeling, it very well might not be about me.
  4. Finally, even if I manage to perform perfectly, get other people to think well of me, and express those feelings, I am perfectly capable of criticizing my own performance and thus creating the feelings of shame all on their own. Back to that one football game; after the game, I was proud that I caught everything, but also disappointed in myself for not getting open more times and for getting tackled sooner than I thought I should have. Those feelings of self-disappointment quickly took over, and were my dominant memory of that game for a long while.

So, if perfectionism is not the answer, what is? One major part of the story is compassionate and loving self-talk . Another part of the story, for me, is having reasonable expectations, both of myself and of others. Another is to give myself credit for my accomplishments without diminishing or minimizing them. Yet another is to acknowledge that I’m a work in progress; I’m still growing and learning and changing, and if today I can’t do something as well as I want, that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn how to be better tomorrow or next week or next month.

I’ve been practicing a number of things for a long time, and I haven’t gotten perfect at any of them. Nor have I been perfect at any of the new things I’ve started. Today, however, I know that that’s okay. If that sounds good to you, maybe give some of the ideas in the paragraph above a try. And, if you don’t know how to do those, it can help to find a guide who’s been there before who can help you.

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