In the spring of 2014, I was sad, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I was engaged to the love of my life. I had a dream job. I had budding friendships with my coworkers. And still I was sad, and anxious, and didn’t feel like I really had control over my own life.
So I started working with a cognitive behavioral therapist. I’ve always felt like a pretty introspective, self-analytical person, and have kept a journal most of my life, but I was still amazed at how much I was able to learn about myself when talking with a mental health professional. (I did briefly consider writing an #empoweredWritten post about my therapist, but believe it or not, I DO have boundaries.)
She kept recommending that I check out a book, something about imperfection? But you know how I am about doing homework. So it wasn’t until several months later that I finally went to the local library and picked up The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It quickly became clear why my therapist had recommended it; with each page it seemed more obvious that Brené had been listening in on our sessions and writing this book just for me. The passage below felt particularly relevant.
Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis. Life-paralysis refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.
- Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
Reading that paragraph always takes me on a depressing magic carpet ride of all the times I’ve held myself back in life. Here's a quick sampling: there was the abstract line drawing project in 8th grade art class that I worked on for a month but never turned in, because it was the first art project I’d ever poured myself into, and I didn’t want anyone to see it unless it was perfect. Then I didn’t take a single art class in high school, even though I desperately wanted to learn how to draw, because I thought I wasn’t good enough to even take a 101 class. In college, I didn’t go for the incredible study abroad program in Prague because it seemed like it was meant for people who were “actually creative.”
And I was staying in a job that made me miserable, because it was too terrifying to admit that my “dream job” wasn’t MY dream job. Anyone with a BA in English should feel lucky to have a full-time job as a writer and editor, let alone someone like me with such a rocky academic record. To tell the truth, I often felt like a fraud, like it was some colossal mistake that I had found myself in such a position — so who the hell did I think I was, contemplating leaving? Who else would even hire me? What was I even capable of?
This was my most common shame spiral before going to therapy and being introduced to the work of Brené Brown.
But reading The Gifts of Imperfection was one of the big turning points in my life. I’m proud and grateful to report that it was actually difficult to tap back into that shame spiral for the sake of this post, because I feel enough distance from those feelings. In the couple years since first picking up this life-changing book, I’ve learned how to practice self-compassion, how to banish "fraudy" feelings, and how to accept imperfection in myself and in my work. (Of course I still struggle sometimes, but I'm much, much more kind to myself than I was back then.) I've come to realize that my happiness is more important than fulfilling others’ expectations, and that having pride in my work is more important than having a career that looks good on paper.
Brené, if you’re reading this, thank you. Your research and your compassion opened my eyes to the ways I was holding myself back. Without The Gifts of Imperfection, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to work through my bullshit, accept my weaknesses and value my strengths. Thank you for helping me find the clarity I needed to envision a happier life.