10 commandments for perfectionists

10 commandments for perfectionists

I’ve known for awhile that I’m a perfectionist, but this summer was the time when my perfectionism and I finally had a standoff.

Perfectionism: I think it’s a great idea to feel stressed, pressured, and overwhelmed all the time. K?

Me: Uh, wait, no, but…

Perfectionism: Also, seriously, you’ve been on this planet for 25 years and you’ve yet to achieve anything extraordinary. Aren’t you paying attention to what I’m saying?

And so on. We wrestled for awhile. We’re still wrestling. And as the summer draws to a close, I decided to sit down and hash out all the things we’ve been arguing over. So here they are – the rules that the mean voice in my head keeps trying to enforce, and the thoughts I want to cultivate.

Perfectionism: Don’t waste time.

Me: Life takes time. Time is only wasted if I’m waiting for it to be over.

Perfectionism: I wish things were different.

Me: Life is a game of “Yes, and…”[1]

Perfectionism: I need to plan in order to control the future.

Me: I’m curious what will happen today and I know I can handle it.

Perfectionism: Must. Be. Serious.

Me: What would kitty do?[2]

Perfectionism: This is such a big deal.

Me: Will this matter in a year?

Perfectionism: I have to be careful.

Me: Life’s great dare is: Am I all in?[3]

Perfectionism: What will the future look like?

Me: What does the present feel like?

Perfectionism: I have to be maximally productive.

Me: I want to explore my whole self.

Perfectionism: I must get everything done.

Me: I can only do my best.

Perfectionism: I have to accomplish something extraordinary.

Me: I want to be happy and serene.

My hope is that articulating these in words will become a useful tool in my day-to-day life. I was doing a chore the other day, wishing for it to be over, when I thought, “Life takes time. Time is only wasted if I’m waiting for it to be over.” Perfectionism will still try to do battle with me, but at least I have some weapons in my arsenal now.

[1] The organizer of the Toronto Happy Healthy Women meetup, Natalie Colalillo, came up with this idea at an improv comedy workshop. Improv comedy requires a “yes, and” approach – you take whatever the other performers give you and run with it, rather than trying to contradict them or go in a different direction. Life is like this, too – you have to accept what happens to you before you can move on and have positive experiences.

[2] In other words, be silly! Cats and cat videos are a reminder for me to keep things fun, silly, and lighthearted.

[3] This is from Brené Brown, and the full quote is: “Vulnerability is life’s great dare. It is life asking, ‘are you all in?’” Living wholeheartedly means not holding back.

Photo by Flickr user Digitalnative

I’ve officially gone off the deep end

deep end

This is day 31 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions “What does it mean to be courageous and “show up”?,” “What does it mean to be authentic?” and “How can you play, laugh, sing, and dance more?” More info here.

I never thought I’d be the one writing about “fluffy,” “sentimental” stuff like vulnerability, acceptance, authenticity, and worthiness. But here I am, on day 31 of (whoops) #30daysofvulnerability, and that’s all that’s on my mind.

If you look back at my writing from college, I’m talking about productivity and rationality and success. I even had a blog once called Joie d’Achieve (that should have been a clue).

Turns out that everything works until it doesn’t work. Being over-focused on achievement worked for me (sort of) for 25 years. But it’s not working anymore.

It makes a lot of sense to me now why self-improvement content is so personal. Gretchen Rubin discovered this when she asked readers what their personal commandments were, and got a ton of contradictory answers: Do more. Do less. Say yes. Say no. Let go. Hold on.

It’s like a pendulum – I’ve been swinging so far to the side of productivity and achievement that I’ve swung all the way to the top and the pendulum is upside down, and I have all the stability of an upside-down pendulum. What I need now isn’t what I needed then – or at least, not what I thought I needed. Maybe if I had encountered these ideas earlier, I wouldn’t be so unbalanced now. But I doubt I would have listened.     

What I learned is the value of being open-minded. Today, I’ve read books that I wouldn’t have touched four years ago. I’ve entertained ideas and concepts and exercises that I would have seen as silly, irrational, or weak. But guess what? It works now. It’ll work until it doesn’t work.

So I’m here on day 31 to tell you about my new three goals. I wrote about how productivity is not a useful happiness proxy, at least not for me. Maybe I’ll fare better with these:

Courage, not success. Focusing on success often means I’m hesitant to try new things and get discouraged in the face of discomfort and stress. Courage means attempting and persisting even when things are hard. Even if I don’t get every single thing on my to-do list done with the patience and peace of a Buddhist, I can still decide to persevere and stay engaged and not give up. I love how Brené Brown says that vulnerability is life’s great dare, asking if you’re all in. I so want to be all in, living with my whole heart, not holding back.

Authenticity, not perfection. Who knew? Turns out I’m not perfect. Or the smartest. Or the best. I want to find out who I am besides an intelligent, productive person. I want to learn about and value my other traits, like being kind and good and curious. I want to listen to my feelings (God, I never thought I’d write this) and not be constantly telling myself how I “should” feel.

Play, not productivity. For a long time, I had this feeling that people who acted silly were dumb, unintelligent. Turns out silly people are very, very smart. I want to smile enough that no one on the street can joke that I dropped my smile (not funny, people!). I want to laugh enough so I get wrinkles and don’t care. I want to play and do nothing and take breaks and cut myself some slack.

So there you have it. None of this is going to be easy, because I still haven’t kicked out the little gremlin inside of me that’s constantly jumping up and down shouting, “Work! Work! Work!” He’s such a jerk, I should totally evict him, but we’re good friends and I’m not quite sure where I’d be without him. I’m not even sure I’m ready to get friendly with a flowery, emotional, Zen fairy, but I know she’s a lot nicer and she won’t call me names. And if she makes me happier, that’s all I’m asking for.

Photo by Flickr user Sarah Ross photography

Most of your to-do list is irrelevant

joy machine

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability: “Make a “joy and meaning” list: List the ingredients that you need in your life to feel like things are going well, and compare it to your to-do list.” More info here.

One of the little tips in Brené Brown’s The Gift’s of Imperfection caught my eye:

“One of the best things that we’ve ever done in our family is making the ‘ingredients for joy and meaning’ list. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of the specific conditions that are in place when everything feels good in your life. Then check that list against your to-do list and your to-accomplish list. It might surprise you,” she writes.

Okay, okay, I get the idea. We have to focus on the essentials. But it didn’t hit home until one evening when I was stressing about my to-do list and forced myself to follow her suggestion: 

Joy and meaning list:

  • A career I love
  • A happy relationship
  • Friends and family
  • Low stress
  • Health

To-do list

  • Be #1 on the writer’s leaderboard for Tech Cocktail
  • Get my work inbox to 0
  • Get my personal inbox to 0, and answer all my dad’s emails
  • Impress the people at the talent agency I have a (totally random) appointment with tomorrow
  • Never make my boyfriend upset
  • Go to gym class three times a week
  • Read one book a week
  • Work on my blog for 10 hours a week
  • Meditate every day

…you get the idea.

You may find related items on your lists – for example, “go to gym class three times a week” and “health.” Health is my real goal, so I need to cut myself some slack when I miss a class (which hasn’t even happened, except when my arm was broken). All my work-related to-do’s should be in service of “a career I love,” not the need to be perfect or hyper-efficient or inhumanely productive. Just because I don’t reply to one of my dad’s emails or say something when I’m hangry that I later regret doesn’t make me a bad daughter or a bad girlfriend.

These lists remind me of Shawn Achor’s concept of meaning markers, the symbolic goalposts in life that guide our actions. Sometimes, we forget about our real meaning markers and get distracted by “hijackers,” false sources of meaning that end up making us frustrated and unhappy.

In other words, most of our to-do lists have been “hijacked” – and if we want our sanity back, we need to find our way to what’s really meaningful.

Photo by Flickr user atomicity

Are you passing life’s little tests?

Brown - experiment 13+15

This is day 24 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “If you’re able to persist and engage in life despite discomfort, what does that say about you?” More info here.

The man who survived the Holocaust and came through with a positive attitude. The 17-year-old girl who spoke out against life under the Taliban. The cyclist who beat cancer and went on to win the Tour de France (before all that drug stuff).

I’ve always felt an odd combination of awe and uneasiness when contemplating the greatness of such people, and now I think I know why. I admire them for their resilience – bouncing back after adversity – at the same time that I question if I’d be capable of it.

There’s a widespread belief that these traumatic moments are when our true self emerges. But how can we know how we’d react to cancer, abuse, tyranny? It’s like contemplating heroic acts – I think I would save someone from drowning…right?

If we want to know the answer, we need look no further than life’s daily discomforts. When Gretchen Rubin created the Happiness Project, she realized that part of her motivation was to prepare for tragedy – her husband’s future liver failure. Not only was she creating a storehouse of happy memories, she was also learning to deal with life’s frustrations.

If we can’t deal with losing a sock, will we be able to deal with our spouse’s liver failure? If a cold is devastating, what will diabetes be like? If we can’t stop thinking about the $5 we lost, what will happen when we lose our job? And so on.

To eliminate the fear that we’d collapse under the adversity, we need to start with the lost socks and colds and bills. Instead of getting annoyed, we can think of them as life’s little exercises – mini-training in resilience. And slowly, the uneasiness and fear may give way to calm and courage.

Photo by Flickr user r.nial.bradshaw

The bad feelings won’t go away – and that’s okay 

theater masks tragedy comedy

This is day 22 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions: “How do you run away from discomfort?” and “Why do you need to normalize discomfort, or understand that discomfort is a part of life?” More info here.

Every time I do a guided meditation, the soothing Andy Puddicombe asks me to remind myself of my motivation for sitting down to practice. 

But just before “Stop my rambling thoughts! Get rid of my stress!” comes desperately to mind, he adds a caveat: meditation doesn’t stop thoughts or feelings. Your motivation has to be in line with the nature of meditation, which is to help us observe, accept, and be present with them. 

Really, Andy, that’s all you’ve got to offer me?

Brené Brown would agree with him, but her way of saying it is that we need to “normalize discomfort.” Discomfort is part of life, normal. She even tells her students that if they don’t feel uncomfortable during the semester, they’re doing it wrong.

“The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame,” she writes. 

Well, it would have been nice to know that a while ago. Most of us grow up learning that discomfort, like pain, is a sign that something is going wrong. Now I understand why some parents resolve not to fix all their children’s problems and tears, but let them sort it out on their own. If every unhappiness or cry is treated like a catastrophe, we grow up into adults who live in fear of negative emotions. 

So, we devise all these techniques for keeping them at bay. I avoid emotionally risky situations – I’m aware that I have an aversion for trying new things, because it’s uncomfortable for me to be an uncertain beginner. It takes Herculean effort for me to go networking, because I constantly feel awkward. I distract myself – with movies and lolcats, reading books, meditation, or talking. 

But probably worst of all, I try to minimize my feelings. I blame other people when the cause is within myself. If I’m in the mood, I make jokes (“I’m stressed about stress! How ridiculous is that!”). I tell myself it’s irrational, I shouldn’t feel upset, to be optimistic. In short, I do everything Andy says not to – I deny what I’m really feeling and try to get it away from me!

“For many of us, our first response to the vulnerability and pain of these [powerful emotions] is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away,” writes Brown. 

The good news in all of this – besides the fact that we’re not nuts, messed up, or flawed for feeling blue sometimes – is that negative and positive emotions are separate things. According to positive psychology research, emotion isn’t a single lever, but two. Women, in fact, have more positive and more negative emotions. Even if you’re feeling bad about something, you can also cultivate good feelings. 

My dad often reiterates words of wisdom from his best friend: “Who said easy?” A lot of the time, it’s our assumption that life will be smooth sailing that makes the rocking and bumping unbearable. As in meditation, the point is to ride out the storm and wait for the waves to settle, not steer the ship as if nothing’s wrong. 

Photo by Flickr user mikecogh

If you’re stressed, you’re not alone 

This is day 19 of #30DaysofVulnerability. More info here.

One theme of Brene Brown’s research is that we’re not alone. Whatever we’re feeling – shame, fear, anxiety – someone (everyone) has been there before. 

But when we’re experiencing these things, we often feel so uniquely dysfunctional. We don’t speak for fear of being judged, when we’d actually be embraced into the fold of common humanity. 

I’ve started writing about stress and perfectionism lately, and it’s a weird feeling talking about these parts of myself. I’m worried I’ll sound weak, self-indulgent, “messed up.” But whenever I get a note from someone telling me to keep writing, I feel like I’ve made a connection – they must understand, too. 

In the spirit of “you’re not alone,” I took to Facebook and asked, “What in life stresses you out the most/when do you feel the most stressed?” Here are some of my friends’ answers: 

Brown - experiment 11 Daniel Daniel T. Richards: Immediate uncertainty stresses me out. Not knowing if I got a job or approved for an apartment or if a loved one will be OK after a health scare. Once I *know* I can act. Cheer, cry, research, etc. But being uncertain is a constant state of stress.”

Brown - experiment 11 Jason GroteJason Grote: “The illusion that I need to be socially relevant – which at times surfaces and overwhelms my ego.”

 

Brown - experiment 11 Michael ShapiroMichael Shapiro: “Put abstractly, competing for limited resources with unpredictable arbitration. For example, waiting in a deli counter or bar where the next person served is whoever catches the eye of the employee. General admission at theaters rather than assigned seating. Traffic. Just about any interaction with organized medicine.”

Brown - experiment 11 Zach DavisZach Davis: “Doing anything other than what I know I *should* be doing (whether it be due to self-induced obligations, bad habits, or losing perspective of the bigger picture). The internal compass always knows where I should be going; stress is the signal that tells me if I’m moving the wrong way.”

Brown - experiment 11 Kane TanKane Tan: “Managing money as a resource. Fixed income, variable wants 🙂 Basically anything where I am aware of a looming cost and a fixed line of resources.”


Brown - experiment 11 Irene Ngo
Irene Ngo: “
When I feel trapped or like I have no control over something. This can apply to different parts of life 🙂 ”

 


Brown - experiment 11 Morgane Heyne
Morgane Heyne: “
Having to hand in my notice at my job because I got a better job at another agency. And as a result, dealing with my clients for a month when all I want is to move on to the next thing.”

That moment when everything is perfect and you think about…someone dying

storm line foreboding joy

This is day 13 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What things in life are you afraid of losing? Instead of feeling fear, can you feel gratitude?” More info here.

For a long time, Brene Brown thought she was the only one who stood over her sleeping children and, “engulfed with love and adoration,” immediately imagined them being killed in car accidents and her getting a call from the police. 

This phenomenon, which she calls “foreboding joy,” is one of those things that everyone does and no one talks about. Curled up in a warm embrace, my heart fit to bursting with happiness, is when I tend to have my shudders of fear about loss and mortality. 

Brown’s topic is vulnerability, and she brings up foreboding joy as an example of how avoiding vulnerability keeps us from fully experiencing positive emotions, not just negative ones. It’s hard to accept that the things in our lives that we love the most are tenuous, fleeting, and fragile, so we back off. Woah, there, don’t get so happy. It might be too good to be true. 

In our heads, we might think we’re preparing ourselves – steeling up our emotions for those worst-case scenarios, or at least reminding our children to be extra cautious. But the idea that we can prevent or minimize the effects of tragedy is an illusion; tragedy is tragedy, and it will be just as devastating if our kids die in a car crash whether we imagined it over and over or not. 

The antidote to foreboding joy is gratitude. Instead of fearing their loss, I should be grateful for my health, family, friends, job, money, and happiness. I should feel lucky that I care enough for these things to be afraid of losing them.

Full-blown, no-holds-barred, vulnerable happiness is the best way to prepare for tragedy, Brown says. Those moments of love, adoration, and joy are filling up our stores of resilience, which will be sorely tested if tragedy strikes. And particularly if it does, we’ll wish we spent all those moments appreciating what we had, not perfectly predicting the future. 

Photo by Flickr user jasohill

A letter to myself 

love letters

This is day 8 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What would you say to yourself about your struggles if you were your best friend?” More info here.

Dear friend, 

It’s been awhile since we talked, and I know you’ve been busy. You helped your boss write a book, flew around the world, launched a meetup group, broke your arm, and started some odd #30daysofvulnerability experiment. That’s a lot to put on anyone’s plate, so it makes sense that you’d feel stressed. 

But why are you beating yourself up about it? Believe it or not, you’re not the only one in the world who gets stressed from time to time. You think you’re better than that? You’re only human. And that’s not an insult! 

Life is full of ups and downs, my friend. The world isn’t divided into “stressed people” and “relaxed people” or “happy people” and “sad people.” But the world may be divided into “people who accept the reality of human emotions” and “people who don’t.” You can be at peace even if you’re stressed and distressed, but not if you think negative emotions are evil. 

Why is everything you’ve done not enough, for now? You’re only 26. Who says 26-year-olds should have all the answers to life? Who says it’s even possible? What if life is like a startup, full of iterating, discovering, learning, checking your assumptions, and pivoting? A plan might be like a business model, a document that gets drafted once and thrown into a corner as it collides with reality and new inputs of data. Maybe a real plan, strictly followed, would hold you back from discovering what you truly love in favor of the structured and secure. 

You’re lucky because you still believe that life can be beautiful – you always did, ever since you started ending all your grade-school essays with uplifting imagery of shining sunlight. You may be skeptical about some things, but you still get teary when you hear an inspirational speaker whom other people find corny. You still see the beauty in a little chickadee taking a dust bath or a homeless violist playing Bach on a street corner. You still believe that dreams come true, that work can be love and love can be spiritual. 

Don’t lose heart – in fact, gain more heart. That’s what you need now, with all your theories and thoughts and outlines and lists. Be wholehearted; don’t restrict yourself. When life asks if you’re all in, shout YES and jump and don’t look back. 

All my love,

Kira

Photo by Flickr user advertisingelyse 

Why we need Brené Brown’s gremlin ninja warrior training

Ninja

This is day 4 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What are the benefits of feeling worthiness, like you are ‘enough’ just as you are?” More info here.

Do you believe you’re worthy of love? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably say, “Of course!”

But according to researcher Brené Brown, everyone is afraid they’re unworthy of love from time to time – unless they’re a sociopath. Shame, which refers to that fear, is universal.

Shame is when we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see. Shame is when we get passed up for a promotion and have to tell our spouses. Shame is when all the other mothers seem to be handling things better. Shame is when we hide our depression or hide our wrinkles. Shame is when we feel like an outsider in the group. Shame is when there’s that one thing that we can never tell anyone about.

In her shame research, Brown encountered a group of people who were resilient to shame. Not that they never felt it, but they were able to work through it courageously and use it as an opportunity to get closer to other people, not push them away. She calls them Wholehearted – and lightheartedly calls their techniques gremlin ninja warrior training. 

What’s it like to live wholeheartedly, knowing that we’re worthy of love and belonging? Out in the world, it’s this wonderful freedom to be authentic, nothing less and nothing more than exactly who we are. We all probably have a friend or two whom we can tell anything, even our most shameful secrets, and we know they’ll still have our back. Imagine that cocoon of support and trust expanding to envelop your whole life. 

Inside our head, being wholehearted just loosens up a lot of pressure. No one job, article, competition, or conversation is going to define who we are. Our self doesn’t hang in the balance at every turn, ready to be pronounced good or bad, success or failure. We don’t have to be hustling all the time to get to a place where we accept who we are, and instead we can enjoy the lifelong journey of self-improvement. 

As gremlin ninja warriors, our first move is to recognize when we’re feeling shame. Then do a bit of mental gymnastics: remind ourselves that we all have imperfections and struggles, and the point is to be courageous in spite of them. The most important move, the one that’ll probably knockout the shame, is to talk to someone. Shame hates company – if someone sees the real you and still loves you, what is there to be afraid of? But as long as we keep it hidden in the dark, the gremlins win.

Photo by Flickr user Daniel Y. Go

The other “s” word 

red robot

This is day 3 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “Who or what are you ‘supposed to’ be?” More info here.

“Stop should-ing all over yourself” -a wise person

“The only thing you ‘should’ do is breathe” -my wise uncle

Sometimes life is a string of shoulds: I should work, I should go to the gym, I shouldn’t eat that ice cream. As adults, we drown in shoulds – while little kids have the answer to all our struggles. 

Open your eyes wide and ask…why? Or better yet, scream it. WHY??

Sometimes we’ll come up with a good answer, an answer from within: I should work on my blog because it’ll help me improve my writing, which is something I want. Instead of “should,” we can say, “I want to do X because…” 

But a lot of the time, the answers come from someone else – a strict parent, the faceless masses of society – or from something negative – the fear of rejection, an irrational belief. No, one ice cream probably isn’t going to chop days off my life, but shoulding all over myself very well might. 

Researcher Brene Brown says that authenticity is letting go of who you’re supposed to be and embracing who you are. “Supposed to” is, aptly, another “s” word. I’m supposed to be calm, put together, and happy. I’m supposed to be outgoing and interesting. I’m supposed to be a productivity machine, always the best and the smartest. Eight years ago, I was supposed to be a violinist…until I realized that I wasn’t.  

My high school calculus teacher called me a robot, and maybe I believed him for awhile. I could be robotic, getting straight A’s, being valedictorian, acing my SAT’s (except that one question – bad robot!). But robots have instructions written by other people. They always do what they’re supposed to be doing, but they don’t enjoy it (at least not yet). Maybe the curse of having wants is that they’re yours, and you have to own them, and you can’t just blame your instruction manual. But it’s a heck of a lot more fun than being a robot. 

Photo by Flickr user littlelostrobot