Striving for achieving a sense of perfection has been a misguided belief in my life, often leading me down the wrong path. It has made me, at times, place value on the wrong things. It has made me not listen to my true self for fear that I would somehow fail in another's eyes. I was curious as to how the idea of perfection has become so pervasive in our society, how it begins, how it hurts us and perhaps, even, if it carries a certain benefit.
P.S. This week, we also feature four charities that we believe in. Scroll down to learn more.
Q:The idea of 'being perfect' is something that plagues many of us in our society, causing a lot of stress and feelings of inadequacy. Where does this idea that we need to be perfect come from? How can we come to terms with (and find the beauty in) imperfection?
From the Research Professor Dr. Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW
Editor’s Note: In the wake of the tragic events of Friday, December 14th in Newtown, Connecticut, the following excerpts from Brené Brown’s new book, Daring Greatly seem especially poignant. Below, she explores how our culture of scarcity endangers connection and vulnerability as we long for perfection, among other desires.
On a culture of scarcity:
"...we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma..."
“Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed major shifts in the zeitgeist of our country. I’ve seen it in the data, and honestly, I’ve seen it in the faces of the people I meet, interview, and talk to. The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved. And when it comes to the staggering numbers of those now unemployed and under-employed, I think every single one of us has been directly affected or is close to someone who has been directly affected.
"Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress..."
Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants. The greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.
After doing this work for the past twelve years and watching scarcity ride roughshod over our families, organizations and communities, I’d say the one thing we have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the national conversation centering on 'What should we fear?' and 'Who should we blame?' We all want to be brave.
Our culture of scarcity is defined by this sentence:
It only takes a few seconds before people fill in the blanks with their own version:
Never good enough.
Never perfect enough.
Never thin enough.
Never powerful enough.
Never successful enough.
Never smart enough.
Never certain enough.
Never safe enough.
Never extraordinary enough.
The three components of scarcity are shame, comparison, and disengagement. To transform scarcity we need to Dare Greatly; we need to cultivate worthiness, a clear sense of purpose, and we need to re-engage.”
On what it means to “dare greatly”:
The phrase ‘Daring Greatly’ is from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, Citizenship in a Republic. This is the passage that made the speech famous:
'It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly . . .'
The first time I read this quote, I thought, “This is vulnerability. Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in...
"Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience."
We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be—a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation—with courage and the willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly."
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham, 2012).
From The Enneagram Scholar Susan McNary, Ph.D.
"The word Enneagram means design of nine and it’s a system that can be used as a map to journey into our own personality. According to this system, there are nine personality types, each with unique gifts, talents, motivations, sensitivities, and weaknesses. A complex system showing us our habits of mind, false assumptions, assets and liabilities, the Enneagram also delves into how we feel and behave when secure and when stressed. The perfectionist is the 'Personality Type One' of the nine personality types.
"The perfectionist embodies the gifts of being wise, principled and conscientious..."
The perfectionist embodies the gifts of being wise, principled and conscientious; but, also runs the risk of being too idealistic and judgmental to the point of becoming critical, intolerant, self-righteous and, perhaps, punitive. Perfectionists have a gift for detail but also have an inner critic than finds flaws automatically. (Ask a perfectionist to proofread your work, they are naturals!) So the gift of great discrimination, authenticity and appreciation of fine points holds the risk of becoming picky, fault finding and difficult to please. No one is harder on the perfectionist than the perfectionist him/herself who lives with a constant inner critic.
The downside of perfectionism is the risk of becoming chronically irritated, frustrated, discontent and, therefore, angry because things are not as they should be. They can be truly intolerant of their own ‘warts and freckles,’ let alone those of others. They may focus on fixing themselves, others and the world around them, trying to right the wrongs of the world. What others may see as the perfectionist’s disapproval or anger may be experienced internally as the energy, determination, and enthusiasm for their cause and the focus on getting the job done right.
As children, they may have relied too much on themselves for guidance, structure and wisdom before they were developmentally able to do so. Without the ability to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and mature discernment, the young perfectionist is too cut and dried and at risk of being way too harsh toward self and others.
"Perfectionists can find their way back to their more genuine 'true' selves by practicing acceptance and serenity"
So, what to do? Perfectionists can find their way back to their more genuine “true” selves by practicing acceptance and serenity. Serenity is well described by the Serenity Prayer - accepting the things we cannot change, changing the things we can and having the wisdom to know the difference. In essence, it’s about striving for completeness rather than faultlessness. Listening to that inner critic with compassion can be painful but extremely rewarding and fruitful. It is also helpful to this personality to stretch into just trying on the other person’s shoes. While some other personality types may actually have a knack for this, perfectionists can find it extremely uncomfortable, as if it is bad or wrong. It takes an open mind and heart and lots of kindhearted practice and patience.
When perfectionists automatically judge or condemn, it is helpful to reflect on when they think they first came up with their opinions and, with lots of loving practice, they may stop and reflect with simple phrases such as: ‘That was then, this is now’; ‘Would you rather be right than happy?’; ‘Does it really matter?’. This is a process that takes time, dedication and patience. It goes against the grain for the perfectionist who is so convinced that their imperfections need to be fixed, preferably, eradicated; but, the wisdom and enlightenment that blossom from Enneagram work can be truly divine."
Dr. Susan McNary, Ph.D is a psychologist with a home practice in Palos Verdes, California evaluating kids and young adults who are experiencing difficulties at school or at home. She is also an Enneagram scholar, having studied extensively with Riso/Hudson, Palmer/Daniels and Richard Rohr. She currently teaches Enneagram at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes.
More on the Enneagram:
If you’re interested in learning more about the Enneagram, you can take the short free personality test here and, at goop, we’ve gotten into Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson’s book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram.
From The Psychologist Dr. Jessica Zucker, Ph.D
Most people in our culture, at some point or another, have experienced moments, if not days or even years, when they consciously or unconsciously hoped they were embodying perfection, or at least crossing their fingers that they were inches from it. Perfectionism, as a personality disposition, however, is characterized by aiming for flawlessness. Research has found that those armed with a mission of daily perfection can suffer greatly – be it from depression, anxiety, or body image dissatisfaction. Traits of perfectionism on the maladaptive side can often include overly critical self-evaluation, setting excessively high achievement standards, and feeling like a failure if certain levels of success are not attained. Accompanying these personality traits is the belief that you can always be doing a “better” job at nearly everything you juggle.
"Perfection is not possible"
Here’s the thing: Perfection is not possible. Perfection is an age-old myth that creates more pain than joy, more confusion than calm, more angst than creative productivity. Being perfect is a farcical fantasy that distracts us from being present. Constantly driving toward perfection creates a sort of black and white, all or nothing perspective that invariably leaves us colorblind. We are forced to forget the beauty that lies between failure and perfection if we think in such binary terms, if we uphold one way of being as the gold standard… a myopic worldview bound to disappoint.
"We’re tempted to think that if we do more, we will feel less insecure, less afraid, and less anxious/depressed."
What I have seen first hand as a clinician is an increase in the wish to create more in the world—to “be” something, while hoping that the feelings of smallness that exist inside will diminish as a direct result. The ethos of perfectionism is tucked deeply in the fabric of myriad messages strewn throughout our competitive culture. We’re tempted to think that if we do more, we will feel less insecure, less afraid, and less anxious/depressed. It’s the fuel that catapults people into despair when they realize that perfection is not possible 100% of the time.
There’s also the indelible imprint parents make on their children that imbues them with a sense of self – an identity that forms on a continuum from perfectionistic insecurity riddled with inadequacy to robust comfortability in one’s skin. If, for example, parents are exceedingly critical or insatiably judgmental of their offspring, patterns of incessantly attempting to please the parental figure can get ingrained in the dynamic. Children want to experience unconditional care and long to be loved despite their level of achievement. When we learn from a tender age that our parents’ delight in us is solely contingent upon our accolades, we can lose our way. We inevitably feel untethered without an internal compass if our parents focus more on what we do than on who we are.
A parent-child dynamic riddled in conditionality essentially sets up an insecure framework—creating a dizzying situation where the child looks outside of themselves for approval, confidence, and adoration. The evolving child begins to unconsciously fantasize that if/when perfection is achieved ongoing love and affection will be secured. When we learn over and over again that our achievements bring us the attention we long for, we push ourselves that much harder to attain a specialness that we hope will make us feel at ease. This quest can throw us off course in terms of authentically understanding and embodying our own passions, our unique attributes, and our overall sense of self.
"Striving, in and of itself, can be chock-full of rewarding jubilant health."
Striving, in and of itself, can be chock-full of rewarding jubilant health. It’s when we chase perfection with tunnel vision as if it’s the only option that we drain our life force. When we strive for excellence while acknowledging our humanity we are less likely to plummet into a dark depression if things don’t turn out as we originally planned. It is maladaptive perfectionism that sets the stage for inevitable failure whereas adaptive standards for high achievement can result in productivity and a measured response when ideals are not attained.
Finding the beauty in not being perfect, or in imperfection, means we are taking an active role in changing the polarizing zeitgeist. The roots of perfectionistic characteristics begin to loosen as we explore basic aspects of identity, such as self-esteem, groundedness, and what it means to be imperfect. We dare to step into our own humanity and experiment with what it feels like to walk away from self-doubt and loathing. Striving toward understanding who we are and why we are who we are might reveal pockets of enlivening imperfection-- a textured humanness that is refreshingly real and surprisingly interesting. It is a revolutionary act to embrace who we are, just as we are."
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. She has a Los Angeles based practice and is a prolific writer and speaker in the areas of women’s health. Dr. Zucker traveled the world doing international public health work prior to pursuing her Ph.D. She is currently writing her first book on mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body. Follow her on twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrZucker
From the Entrepreneur Peter Sims
"Breaking free from perfectionism isn’t easy, largely because of how we’re raised and taught. We’re rewarded and loved by parents, teachers, and mentors for getting good grades, accomplishing athletic achievements, or getting into a great school or job. The problem with that approach to praise and reward is that it builds up our resistance to doing anything that’s less than perfect. And since being imperfect, and being willing to make mistakes in order to discover new paths, opportunities and approaches is essential to any creative process. Unless we’re a genius or prodigy like Mozart, we must unlearn a lot of old habits.
In my experience, many, many people, especially creative people have very judgmental parents. My dad was my harshest critic, though it was all coming from a place of incredible character and unconditional love. His dad did the same, and it just cascaded down. On the flip-side, mothers (and fathers, too) can unleash creativity with their unconditional love and unendingly optimistic encouragement and support, as my mother did (we were very close). Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, had a similar experience with his parents. Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar had the same, as well as his business partner John Lasseter, cofounder and chief creative officer of Pixar, whose mother emphatically encouraged him to follow his childhood interest in cartoons.
"...the key thing that needs to happen is for the person to let go of the feeling that they have to be an idea, rather than just being you..."
Since I work with and lead a lot of artists, the power relationships are very interesting. If a father and/or mother was overly critical, the key thing that needs to happen is for the person to let go of the feeling that they have to be an idea, rather than just being you as I encourage people to be. It's one of the hardest things to actually do -- but what drives it all comes down to support structures and personal will.
For a rich exploration around the negative effects of praising achievements versus effort and why certain people fear failure so much more than others, Stanford Professor of Psychology, Carol Dweck has produced the definitive body of research and book called Mindsets. You can read a great summary article on Dweck’s research in this Stanford Magazine article entitled “The Effort Effect.”
When I jumped off a cliff in my career to try to write a book that eventually became Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, I was haunted for months by a voice that had no face. It said, 'You are not worthy…Don’t fail…No one will want to read this crap…You are a fraud!' Sound familiar?
Dweck’s findings lead to the key insight that anyone, at any age, can become more creative if they’re willing to start trying things. I call these 'little bets,' a loss that you determine you can afford to take before making a small bet. The secret to being creative is that everyone who creates anything needs to overcome fears.
"The antidote to these fears is simple. Make a small bet. Do things to learn what to do."
Maybe a little bet for you is writing a blog piece. Maybe it’s writing a paragraph on a piece of paper. Maybe it’s going to a Pilates class. Maybe it’s calling an old friend. The point is, and as Dweck’s research shows, we can move from a mindset based on fear of failure and perfectionism (what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”) to a “growth mindset” if we just start taking small steps toward our dreams and goals.
Writer Anne Lamott, (who wrote the gamechanging, Bird by Bird recommends writing what she calls 'shitty first drafts' when starting something new. Just get as many thoughts and ideas down on paper as possible, without letting your inner critic take over. Similarly, as Frank Gehry has shared with me, the way he overcomes his fears of failure, is to 'just start' making prototypes of his ideas, starting with cardboard and duct tape, crude as they may be at first.
At Pixar, director Brad Bird calls people there who are willing to challenge the status quo and think differently about problems 'black sheep.'
"Are you a black sheep?"
It starts today. And, it starts small, with a little bet. It’s really that simple and that hard. The world needs your creativity and passion now more than ever. With all the challenges facing our country and world, we need a creative revolution, one driven by the unleashing of millions of previously undiscovered creative talents, talents that will also allow us to be infinitely more human and original.
We were very sad to learn of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14th, 2012 and would like to extend our sincerest condolences to the families, loved ones and anyone affected by this devastating event. As a result, goop is adding The Sandy Hook Foundation to the three great organizations we are donating to and supporting this holiday season. The Edible Schoolyard, The David Lynch Foundation and Pencils of Promise have all touched us for their proven success in helping children.
Please read on to see how each organization has made a valuable difference in the fields of education, nutrition and general wellbeing for children. If you wish, you can also add to our donation by clicking through directly to each charity's dedicated donation page and make a contribution. We hope that after reading about these wonderful causes, you will feel as passionately about them as we do.
Founded in 1996 by culinary pioneer Alice Waters, The Edible Schoolyard Project envisions a school curriculum and school lunch program where growing, cooking, and sharing food at the table empowers students to care about what they eat and where their food comes from, and to build a sustainable future. Their programs demonstrate how gardens and kitchens are ideal classrooms for experiential learning -- enriching academic subjects like science, math, history and social studies. In addition to educating students in their local community and training teachers from around the country, The Edible Schoolyard Project has recently launched the first edible education online community. At edibleschoolyard.org, members of the growing edible education movement can network, share classroom resources and stories about their work with allies around the world.
Dedicated to bringing free transcendental meditation instruction to at-risk adults and youth, particularly students in under-served urban schools, women and girls who are victims of violence and abuse, veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and homeless adults and children. They are also teaching TM to people in Staten Island and Brooklyn whose lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy. (We’ve featured David Lynch on meditation before.)
Pencils of Promise is an international educational organization that focuses on building strong school structures and sustainable education programs. By forming long-lasting, collaborative relationships with communities, they increase access to quality education and positively impact students and parents in high-need communities throughout Ghana, Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.