I am 100% - decidedly, definitely, absolutely - imperfect - in the sense that I make mistakes and I mess up. Sometimes I completely fail. The uncontroversial fact of my imperfectness did not stop me from diligently working to be perfect for most of my life.
“Perfect” meant safe to me. “Perfect” meant survival. The survivalist thinking behind my own perfectionism (which I only came to understand when I began to explore trauma) meant never being left again, never being hurt again, and never being without a sense of dignity again. If I were perfect, I would never be left wanting. My needs would always be met. To me, being perfect meant being safe and secure. My assumption worked thusly: if I were perfect I would need nothing from anyone because I would have it all. Not only would I finally be “not-too-much,” but attaining this state of not-too-muchness would allow me to be loved, accepted, and wanted by friends, lovers, family, and employers." They might even be willing to give me things because they would not be overwhelmed by my need. While I was magically getting all my needs met without troubling anyone by asking for things, I would win all the medals, be showered with all the accolades, and put on a pedestal. Furthermore I would be universally loved, and present as incredibly attractive to everyone regardless of their tastes and proclivities. I am not saying this was a reasonable model of how life works. I am saying this was my ridiculously faulty model.
My mother would tell me that “nobody’s perfect.” That used to feel more damning than freeing. Regardless of how her proclamation lands with you, she is right - if by perfect you mean, never messing up, never making mistakes, never misstepping and looking foolish. I would try to find work arounds, failing to be perfect all along the way. I would minimize my achievements only recognizing myself as continually falling short of my impossible goal of always being perfect. What I perceived as failure left me feeling ashamed. Shame thrives on secrecy, and I would hide my shame because perfect people have nothing to feel shameful about. The internal pressure systems of shame and perfectionism created a perfect and unyielding storm of insecurity, alienation, and self-loathing. One day, that shame-perfectionism storm broke me open, body and spirit. It left me laid out in bed, unable to move, my fears spilling out in the form of flashbacks, triggers, and nightmares. Survival now meant that I had to admit to folks over and over again that not only was I imperfect - I also needed a lot of help.
Perfectionism becomes limiting and paralyzing because if you are not going to be perfect right off the bat at a thing then what are you going to do? Try anyway and feel like an awful failure? Not try and never learn how? Frankly, these options suck and undermine the whole “feeling awesome” part that we chase in our belief that feeling awesome is what perfect people experience. Guess what, those folks who we consciously or unconsciously put on a pedestal as exemplars of perfectionism are imperfect, sometimes even deeply problematic people.
The human condition is to be a mess. I have learned that in order to pursue personal fulfillment and occasional feelings of awesomeness, I have to lean into that mess. I began to lean in a few years ago, albeit begrudgingly, as I rebuilt myself in the aftermath of the shame-perfectionism superstorm. I began to see myself not as a failure but as someone who is curious. I began to see myself as someone who is disciplined and practicing her way to mastery, not as a serial-failure. I began to feel fulfilled, safe, and flawed. And most importantly, by admitting my mistakes and imperfections I began to feel connected to others rather than alienated from them. The people that really love me and even many of the folks who just like me are neither shocked nor overwhelmed by my gloriously, imperfect self.