“That’s so perfect!”
“That’ll be perfect … thank you.”
“She’s perfect.”
“Isn’t that perfect?”

I don’t know about all of you, but I used to (and sometimes still do during my most stressed moments) strive for perfection in certain aspects of my life. And with such high, unattainable expectations for myself and others, I found that I was very often disappointed. Why the hell do I do that to myself (and especially others)? If you think about it, it’s entrapment. The only results are hurt and disappointment. It’s completely self-deprecating and does nothing but tear down one’s self-esteem, build on anxieties and insecurities, and feed the ugly gremlin of shame that says, “You’re not good enough.”

But perfectionism breeds on shame, according to author, researcher, and sociologist Brene Brown.

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are

This trap of perfectionism pulls us down and we start to say horrible things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else. “You’re not good enough for this.” “You’re too fat, too old, too inexperienced, etc.” And the problem is, we’re setting goals but we’re not addressing the shame and figuring out ways to silence those nasty conversations in our heads.

Maybe you can relate to this self-deprecating cycle:

  • Set well-intentioned and lofty goal.
  • Start strong and meet milestones for about two weeks or a month. You’re feeling empowered to make a change!
  • Notice no or slow results and start to wane on momentum.
  • Perhaps compare yourself to others and are dissatisfied and ashamed that you’re success isn’t coming as readily as theirs in.
  • Get disappointed and discouraged in your efforts – I mean why aren’t you perfect at this right out of the gate? Momentum wanes even more and maybe you start to feel poorly about yourself and say negative things about yourself. “I’m never going to be able to do this.”
  • Allow other things or people to take priority over your goal.
  • Toss it aside for later because “it just isn’t worth it.”
  • Feel poorly that you aren’t achieving goal … start the cycle all over again.

It’s freakin’ madness, isn’t it? I know I feel insane after the multitude of years that I’ve repeated this cycle for certain challenges I face in life!

So how do we stop it? How do we keep high expectations of perfection from sabotaging our efforts?

First: It takes some tough love, self-realization, admitting some ugly truths about yourself, and some real mental work.

Brown suggests answering these four questions (I answered them because it’s only fair that I express that vulnerability with you):

  1. Who do you become when you’re backed into a shame corner? I become insecure and guarded.
  2. How do you protect yourself? I pull back and throw myself into things that I am good at to rebuild my self-esteem.
  3. Who do you call to work through the “mean-nasties,” the “cry-and-hides,” and the “people-pleasing”? I have two coaches, my mother, and a handful of friends who are THAT honest with me.
  4. What is the most courageous thing you could do for yourself when you feel small and hurt and inadequate? Find my positive, empowered voice and find the courage to push through. I might not be 100 percent successful, but I might learn something about myself.

If you are not self-aware, find an honest (and I mean a tell-it-like-it-is, you’re-probably-gonna-cry) kind of friend who loves you and is well intentioned, not mean-spirited. Give your friend permission to be honest with you and ask the friend for the truth to whatever question you have. And then thank your friend for the stones it took to tell you the hard truth. (Listen, if you don’t have a friend like this, get one. Seriously. My coach (yes, coaches need coaches, too, for certain things in their lives) would tell you that every good C.E.O. needs this person on her personal board of directors.)

Listen, self-awareness can be your best friend and a total biotch at times. But once you know, it’s like the friend who hands you the tissue, pours you a glass of your favorite wine, and says “Ok, now that we got the ugly out of the way, what do you want to do?” This is ground zero – the most important and courageous conversation to have with a friend, but mostly with yourself:

  • What is continually getting in your way?
  • What are you REALLY going to DO ABOUT IT?
  • What are the new positive messages that you will tell yourself?
  • How do you celebrate your everyday successes…and finally flip the bird to perfectionism?

We’re all in this life together, but we’re each paving our individual paths. The reminder is: Our only competition is with ourselves. The hard Truth is: The change you want starts with you. And that change takes courage AND action. It means putting all your vulnerability on the line and then setting up real, attainable tactics to address those fears, inhibitions, and shame gremlins. It also means setting up accountability and success strategies to empower you through to the end. It means having an answer to Brown’s fourth question.

I was thinking about this for myself the other day after talking to my coach. She said, “Get rid of expectations. Throw them away! Take the timeline off of it.” I didn’t breathe for a second … it was like a punch in the gut. But after some self-reflection, I thought, “Oh God, she’s right, isn’t she?!”

Create your goal and then work toward it … see where it takes you and what else you discover about yourself along the way. Brown said, “It’s like walking toward a star in the sky. We never really arrive, but we know we’re heading in the right direction.” The point is to start walking.

Let me know if you need a coach along the way.