Practicing Imperfection {Book Club}

Guidepost #2 in The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown smacks us right between the eyes, doesn’t it?! One of my friends talks about the importance of being “acceptable outsiders.” Meaning as foreigners, we are probably never going to perfectly fit in to the culture we live and serve in. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to be acceptable.

How many of us inadvertently assume “acceptable” is Christianese for “perfect?”

I claim this as my life tag line ... even though it's really on my tea tumbler
I claim this as my life tag line … even though it’s really on my tea tumbler

I’ve written about perfection before in a guest post for Mary DeMuth and in part wrote:

“I just want to do it perfectly.” She’d probably been saying variations of this for months before it finally clicked that one of my co-workers wants to do everything perfectly.

This theme did not show up in just her work, relationships must be perfect too. But it didn’t end there, reactions, didn’t escape the need to be perfect and she’d beat herself up when she didn’t respond perfectly or perfectly anticipate how someone else might respond. Having tuned into it, I began to notice it in every nook and cranny of her life and would jokingly point it out.

Fast forward to coffee with a woman I mentor. I asked about a work project and she had made zero progress since our last conversation because she wanted it to be, you guessed it, perfect.

Because the pumped had already been primed, out popped the question: what’s the difference between perfect and excellent?

These are two people who are not opposed to working hard, but in their desire to be perfectionists, the irony is that they were not as productive as they could have been.

Though it might appear that there is a fine line between doing something perfectly instead of excellently, it turns out that the difference is fairly easy to spot.

1. When you approach a task do you feel overwhelmed or engaged? Perfectionism is a cruel task master that will suck the life and joy out of any task. She will bring up all of the things that could go wrong and remind you of all that is riding on this meal, conversation, proposal, or performance. If, however, you find yourself energized as you think through and plan for something, you are more likely to be an excellentist. (My perfectionistic friends don’t like the word excellentist because “it isn’t a word and, therefore, not perfect.” But I’m sticking with it.)

2. Which message do you hear as you talk to yourself, “I can’t” or “I can?” Perfect probably is not doable, leading you to tell yourself why try because you can’t have the perfect project, your children won’t behave perfectly, or there is no way to time something perfectly. But doing something excellently is doable. You can have an excellent project, well behaved children, or a well-timed project.

3. At the end of something do you have the sense that your work is never good enough or do you have a sense of accomplishment? When an excellentist finishes something they hear “well done, good and faithful servant!” But a perfectionist sees all of the things she should have done better and areas she blew it. If you ask her what went well, it probably will take some time to come up with something.

*****

Both of these women lived overseas. Both loved the Lord deeply and desired to serve him wholeheartedly. Both opened my eyes to the unique ways perfectionism can worm its way into our thinking when we are “outsiders” and desire to be be salt and light.

I appreciate the distinction Brene made when it comes to focus. Am I other focused or self focused? As believers we are to be other focused, but I’d say more in serving and being with them, than concerned (dare I say obsessed) with what they think of us or our service.

I looked up Dr. Neff’s  self compassion scale. She’s got both a longer version and a shorter one — under “scales for research” How does the idea of self compassion sit with you? Brene links compassion and perfection and says, “Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us… Thankfully, compassion also spreads quickly.When we are kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion we can extend to others.”

A reservoir of compassion that I can extend to others.

Wouldn’t it be great if one day what is inscribed on my tombstone is “She had a reservoir of compassion she extended to others.”

How much of a struggle is perfectionism (since we’re all somewhere on that continuum!)? How do we help those around us who wrestle big time with perfectionism — be them our kids, teammates or locals? What ways work for you to extend compassion to yourself? (One of the big ways for me is I give myself permission to go to the gym even if I’m “too busy” — the time moving my body helps restore my soul.)

Next week we’ll talk about Guidepost #3: Cultivating a Resilient Spirit.

Get a fun drink and join us in the comments for a chat on perfectionism, compassion, and reservoirs.

Amy

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Photo Credit: Trevor King 66 via Compfight cc

17 Comments

  1. Kimberly Todd March 17, 2014

    My oldest son is 5 1/2 and loves to read. By that I mean he will sit for hours absorbed in an audiobook or listening to me or his dad read to him. It’s a beautiful thing. So this year having demonstrated reading readiness signs we began to systematically teach him to read. Disaster. He hates it. It can be really painful. My husband finally made the connection that he’s afraid of not doing it perfectly the first time so he flops around in his chair refusing to look at the page or to try to work his way through a new lesson. I really like the image of a reservoir of compassion. The rest of that paragraph goes on to say that our children learn how to be self-compassionate by watching us. I am highly motivated to create this reservoir of compassion.

    1. Brittany March 18, 2014

      Oh, I can so identify with your little boy!  Unfortunately, the older I have gotten, the more paralyzing my perfectionism has become.  Now, I’m trying to undo the habits that I’ve developed over time, and I know it’s going to take just that…time.  Keep encouraging him and showing him compassion.

      1. Kimberly Todd March 18, 2014

        Thanks, Brittany. And I echo what Amy said below. It’s great to journey beside you as you connect with this book. I look for you to show up each week with your insights.

    2. Amy Young March 18, 2014

      I am highly motivated too! As I watch my nieces age — oldest is now in junior high and can be a bit paralyzed by rules — I want her to swim in that reservoir and be able to be compassionate to herself. I just want them to love themselves and take joy in themselves the way God does! Will be thinking of you all as you navigate these waters, Kim. Kudos for putting 2 and 2 together! Now you’ve at least got a direction. And if it doesn’t go “perfectly” — compassion towards yourselves in parenting :).

  2. Elizabeth March 18, 2014

    I’m not reading the book (eek! not perfect, hehe!), but I really appreciate this discussion. I have struggled with perfectionism to varying degrees over the years, and it seems every time I release myself in one area of perfectionism, I will find it cropping up in another area. Oy. But I love the distinction between excellentism and perfectionism, and it inspires me to push toward the excellentism — though, I probably won’t push towards it with perfection. 🙂 I, like your friend, have been known to beat myself up for my reactions, and even my comments on a blog or facebook. My COMMENTS bring me shame! That is no way to live, and by now, my sweet husband just replies to my worries with the statement, “That’s your insecurity talking.” Which is a very good reminder to let it go, and possibly points out one of the underlying reasons I deal with the perfectionism. Thank you again for the encouragement to give up my perfectionistic tendencies, and breathe a little easier in my service for God and others. I need it.

    1. Brittany March 18, 2014

      I did not even realize how much shame I feel day to day until working through this book.  Ugh!  I am so right there with you about feeling shame even after posting comments!  What a sweet husband to not belittle or condemn, but gently remind.

    2. Amy Young March 18, 2014

      No worries on reading or not reading :). The point of a book club is to foster learning, discussion and relationships — books are medium, not the focus. Comment away! Elizabeth, this may be a bit cheesy, but I know some people who will name that voice your head — the one your husband says is insecurity. Does she sound like anyone? A critical aunt? A teacher? A parent? By giving the voice in our head a name, it’s easier to start to hear it/him/her as different from OUR voice and GOD’s voice. And then it’s easier to say, “Oh Stella, my comment was just fine. Go away!” or “Jessica, that’s not very helpful!” I know it can be a bit cheesy, but for some folks it really helps and then creates another way for you and your husband to connect against an enemy to your relationship and happiness 🙂

      1. Elizabeth March 18, 2014

        Haha! No, unfortunately, the voice sounds like me, not anyone in my life. But I could start talking to myself. 🙂 Although I think I like labeling it Insecurity, because that sounds like much more of an enemy than “Elizabeth.” Great idea though!

        1. Elizabeth March 18, 2014

          But to illustrate just how deep that Insecurity goes, after I said that, I worried if I offended you by not using your suggestion. Sometimes I just literally have to call my thoughts “brain trash,” and throw them away in the “brain trash can” (I stole that idea from a children’s book for dealing with OCD). Otherwise I obsess forever. This is clearly something God is working on in me. Did I mention I’m seeing a counselor later this month??

          1. Amy Young March 18, 2014

            🙂 … not offended at all. I did think, “You know Elizabeth, even if the voice sounds like you, it’s not you, not the real you.” Name it whatever you want, don’t name it :), whatever works for you! Your counselor is going to love working with you … I mean that (because you are highly motivated and aware :))

  3. Brittany March 18, 2014

    I feel like this chapter was written for me.  I think so much of my shame is wrapped up in this very thing.  I *think* want perfection.  She said, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best…[it’s] about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” (66)  I certainly justify my perfection tendencies (okay, really, it’s my LIFE not just a tendency), by hiding behind the “I just want to do my best” line.  Why do I want to do my best?  Because it’s what’s expected…it’s what I should do…what will people think?…”It’s not worth doing if it’s not worth doing right”…  I read this chapter and guess what I did.  I beat myself up for trying to be perfect all the time.  More shame.  I’m working on the self-compassion part!

    Wouldn’t you know it, there has been a situation this week that has allowed me to practice all the things we’ve been discussing these last few weeks.  I feel like I had a bit of a breakthrough, and one of the things had to do with self-compassion.  I felt condemnation from someone whom I had trusted to bear this burden with me.  I was really upset about how I felt in response.  What an opportunity to give myself grace and balance my emotions!  I could identify my hurt and had my gracious husband was a wonderful sounding board as I talked through this.  I was then able to think rationally that my friend had not intended to hurt me, but she spoke foolishly as I have done before.  After having the compassion on myself, I was able to extend compassion to her.   As someone who has beaten myself up over and over again when I feel hurt or when I’ve made a mistake, self-compassion is definitely something I need the Spirit to be working in me.

    Thanks for these practical ways to identify the difference between excellentism and perfectionism.  How very eye-opening for me.

  4. Amy Young March 18, 2014

    Brittany! Thank you for sharing a bit of your journey and the ways in which dots are being connected for you. Though I don’t know you well (other than from comments at VA), I am excited that God seems to have you on a journey. And it’s exciting when we can visibly see God at work — thanks for letting us join in! And I think you are on to such a DEEP truth: After having the compassion on myself, I was able to extend compassion to her.  

    Why do we love? Because he first loved us. For the long-haul, we serve and live out of what we have. We can give for a while out of what we don’t have, but ultimately that path will end in burn-out.

    Love, love, love how you are connecting with this book 🙂

    1. Brittany March 19, 2014

      Thank you, Amy and Kimberly.  I too am enjoying this journey.  You know, in all of our pre-field training, we heard so much about how much the first term (especially the first year) is about transition and learning how to live life in such a new place with new purpose.  I’m convinced that no amount of training can really prepare you for the “sink or swim” that this has been for us.  I don’t think I really understood how much this would be God working through so much of the messy in my heart.  How crucial to be deeply rooted in the Vine!  This blog (the topics, discussions, this book club) has been a tool that He has used to encourage my heart, cause me to really think through some things, and most of all, see that I’m not alone in all of this!

  5. Mary Beth March 18, 2014

    Amy, I have read and re-read your post about excellentism vs perfectionism a few times and it’s always so freeing. I OFTEN need that reminder, especially at the beginning of a new semester with new courses and students. This semester I am in more of a leadership position and i have found myself seriously worrying about how to interact with our leaders- what if i say something too directly or do something culturally inappropriate?! THE SKY IS FALLING! I continuously have to tell myself that i will make mistakes and it is okay. I find that a lot of my students also struggle with perfectionism, so if anything good can come from it i am able to share my struggles, what i am learning, and where my identity truly lies. thanks for this thread 🙂

    1. Amy Young March 18, 2014

      Mary Beth, your comment is a beautiful illustration of what a THIEF perfectionism (laced with shame) can be. Your comment/thoughts are about the mistakes you might make … not the way you might do things BETTER than those who went before you :). I can hear you suck in air at the scandal of it all, maybe thinking, AMY THEY ROCKED. Yes, they were worthy and lovely flawed leaders. Sure, you have flaws, but you also have strengths that they did not have :). Play to your strengths. And Mary Beth, you have many of them. I love how you are sharing your journey with so many!

    2. Shelly April 2, 2014

      Mary Beth, your comment reminded me of the season I took on a role that identified me as the last stop in solving issues (problems) between our teachers and university partners. I was continually comparing myself to the previous person and their ease with such relationships, and striving to do it at least as well. I kept trying to push through, but anxiously wondered what my efforts were achieving. And a letter from one of those partners describing me as “overbearing” did not help the situation.  Ms. Perfectionism, fearful of failure, believing that others would be so disappointed in her, felt stuck between two parties wanting something the other would not give (a failure just waiting to be fulfilled). I never felt so incompetent (and maybe without any control) in my life. 

      (Just read the excellentist post, Amy.) I’d like to think that seeing areas for improvement is useful, but when it leans more closely to “not good enough” I can see the problem. And THAT is me. I finish a class and anticipate my teammate asking how it went, I hear myself say in my head, “It was…well…ok.” I am not happy with the results, I am too concerned about how I was perceived by my students. Did they like the lesson (especially my higher functioning students who could easily be bored with what I do to reach the majority middle)? Will they even want to listen to other things I hope to share with them about life? And so the thoughts go. Sigh. Perfectionism is SO me, and sometimes I feel like I will not be free of it because I can’t see a “perfect way” to break free from it. (I smile at that, but there is a fear that I could be stuck. And fear is certainly a friend of perfectionism.)

      What is one to do? Well, Brene ends her chapters with DIG deep. For me, as I write, I could start in this way.  Get deliberate: take the self-compassion quiz and discover that I need to work on recognizing that my feelings of failure or difficulty are common to humanity and talk to another person about how I am feeling so that I do not isolate myself in what could be a downward thought process.  I also need to keep up the practice of telling myself that 80% really is ok. (It’s better than just passing, but less stressful that striving for an “A” all the time.)  Get Inspired: Brene’s phrase “imperfect does not equal inadequate” is helpful here.  As well as your cup saying, Amy. I love it. I also noticed some articles worth looking at on Neff’s self-compassion site. Get going: Maybe I’ll start with Brene’s morning thought – “Today, I’m going to BELIEVE that showing up is enough.”

      So much food for thought in this book…but I’m coming at the topics a bit behind the week. (And as I write this sentence I realize Ms. Perfectionism is interjecting herself.  “80% is okay, Shelly. 80% is okay.”

  6. Karen Huber March 18, 2014

    Great post! I’m not reading the book, but am gleaning loads of things I relate to (and will hopefully grow from) in these book club posts. Thanks, Amy!

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