As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I was particularly drawn to a book titled The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. In today's high-achieving culture, perfectionists are often applauded and even rewarded for their desire to perform. Grades, jobs, and social media promote the idea that we have to be perfect to compete in college, at work, and with our friends. Brené Brown, writer and research professor best known for her TED talk, "The Power of Vulnerability" wrote a book exploring the American obsession with perfectionism and how it harms our egos and souls. The Gifts of Imperfection is a chronicle of Brown's qualitative research of this obsession and it's antidote—what she defines as "Wholehearted Living." Wholehearted Living, Brown explains, is "Courage and compassion to live a life where I know I am worthy of love and belonging." Although The Gifts of Imperfection focuses on the broader view of Wholehearted Living, I read the book through the lens of perfectionism, and made some interesting personal discoveries about what perfectionism is and how we can conquer it.
What is Perfectionism?
Seemingly contrary to it's title, perfectionism is not about being perfect. Perfectionism is about appearing perfect. And since none of us are actually perfect, trying to appear perfect makes us tired, stressed, and upset. Brené Brown explains it this way: “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.” Brown also explains that doing your best is not the same as trying to be perfect, because doing your best is based in self-acceptance and love. Doing your best means that whatever your best is, that's good enough. In contrast, perfectionism will never be enough, for anyone.
How Do We Overcome Perfectionism?
In The Gifts of Imperfection, each chapter is devoted to a different principle of Wholehearted Living. The specific principles of play, gratitude, and stillness directly counter perfectionism and it's side effects. Brené Brown promises that daily, deliberate practice of these three principles will help readers overcome perfectionism and experience greater joy and love in their lives.
Unstructured playtime has been proven as an important developmental process for children. But adults could benefit from play as well. Brown cites several different studies that demonstrates the busy schedule of the average American family. Between school, work, church, and the million and one social obligations we each take on, there isn't any time left over for sleep, let alone light-hearted goofing around. She explains the exhilaration (and fear) she felt as a parent when she decided to limit her daughter's extra-curricular activities. She wrote, "While this experience may sound great [scheduling more downtime for the family], it was terrifying for me as a parent. What if I'm wrong? What if busy and exhausted is what it takes? What if [my daughter] doesn't get to go to the college of her choice because she doesn't play the violin and speak Mandarin and French and she doesn't play six sports? What if we're normal and quiet and happy? Does that count?" The truth is, play counts if what matters to you is your ability to live a wholehearted life for yourself, rather than pleasing other people. So yes, play counts a lot.
The Gifts of Imperfection explores the connection between gratitude and joy. Brown explains that joyful people aren’t grateful, grateful people are joyful. Gratitude brings us joy no matter what our current circumstances may be. She gently reminds readers that true gratitude is more than just the cliché "Attitude of Gratitude." Real gratitude comes from careful, considerate practices such as writing in a gratitude journal, offering prayers of thanks, or even just saying something you're grateful for out loud. Gratitude is the best medicine for perfectionism because it cultivates an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity. The consumer-driven culture of America tells you that your life and your talents are scarce. Celebrities, commercials, and corporations say you’re not smart enough, rich enough, pretty enough, or good enough. Brené Brown encourages readers to live a Wholehearted Life and fight this attitude with deliberate acts of gratitude, and thereby find greater joy in your every day life.
As a very spiritual person, I was pleased to see a secular book mention the role stillness plays in living a Wholehearted Life. I have felt greater love and joy when I make time to be calm, even for just a moment, each day. Stillness as a daily ritual can appear intimidating and overwhelming, especially when we feel like we don't have enough time to be busy, let alone enough time to be still. But it doesn't have to be that way. Brown suggests, "In our increasingly complicated and anxious world, we need more time to do less and be less. When we first start cultivating calm and stillness in our lives, it can be difficult, especially when we realize how stress and anxiety define so much of our daily lives. But as our practices become stronger, anxiety loses its hold and we gain clarity about what we're doing, where we're going, and what holds true meaning for us." Once stillness becomes a habit, it will also be a reward.
The Gifts of Imperfection closes with a promise from Brené Brown. She insists that a Wholehearted Life can be obtained if we have the courage to cultivate attention to what really matters. If we will develop habits of play, gratitude, and stillness, we can discover what holds true meaning for us, eliminate the need to appear perfect, and find greater joy in every aspect of our lives.