Mistakes, errors, failures, stuff-ups.
Whatever you call them, we all know them. Mistakes are a part of life; they happen. And like many aspects of life, I think it is our relationship to them that ultimately determines their impact on us.
As a recovering perfectionist, I know all too well the heart-pounding, stomach sinking, and sweaty-palmed sensations even the thought of making a mistake can trigger. Of course, perfectionists rarely actually believe themselves to be perfect. It’s quite the opposite actually.
For me, perfectionism has always been about managing outer circumstance, appearances, actions, interactions, and avoiding any chance of judgement (real or perceived) in order to begin feeling even remotely good enough.
The sad irony is that living with a perfectionist mindset in order to attain a state of “good enough” has set me up to consistently feel like no more than a complete and utter failure most of the time. Being a human who’s having a human experience can be unavoidably messy—sometimes difficult—but it’s always imperfect.
That being said, living with a perfectionist mindset, expecting ourselves to move through life perfectly without ever erring, is ultimately impossible.
So why do we do this to ourselves? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, perfectionism has been a protective mode that arose from my own survival strategies. I can’t say exactly when the sense of being fundamentally flawed emerged, but it is something I always remember being there.
This, combined with the environments I would subconsciously select for myself, strengthened the belief that there was something wrong with me and fuelled my hyper-vigilant state, which meant that my perfectionist streak went unchecked for years.
Don’t get me wrong, this mindset served me well and kept me safe in situations where my imperfect humanness served as a reason for others to judge my character and in environments where mistakes were not acceptable. However, survival mechanisms are best utilised short-term, and when adapted as a way of life, they can become exhausting, debilitating, and even downright dangerous to our well-being.
The causes of our individual drivers of perfectionism may not be identical, however, I believe they all contain a few key ingredients. The first is an innate sense that we are flawed or not enough, and the second being a fear, disapproval, or being judged in some way, as well as environments or situations that trigger or support perfectionism as a survival mechanism.
So, what’s the antidote? Short of a 12-step program, my own recovery from the perfectionist mindset has been (and continues to be) a gradual and often subtle process. It’s something I’m certainly still working on, but for me, the first step has been accepting the reality that being a human with a human experience means to be fundamentally imperfect.
No more smoothing out the rough edges to make my experience more palatable for myself and others. No more hiding behind a thin veneer of false certainty, and no more rushing around in a state of hypervigilance, furiously correcting any errors, and covering all traces of a mistake lest I be judged as anything less than enough.
This alone has filled my life with a spaciousness and sense of calm that have allowed me more time to make decisions and carry out tasks with my full attention. Indeed, accepting life for what it is and knowing I will be imperfect and thus make mistakes is definitely not the answer that my perfectionist mind ever wanted to hear. And perhaps it’s not the one yours does either.
However, I’ve discovered an immense freedom that lies in allowing what is present to simply be, rather than denying or fighting against it every moment of our existence.
How do I know I’m on the road to recovery from a perfectionist mindset? In the last week alone, I have sent an email with a crucial typo to an entire group, drove an hour to an appointment only to discover I was a whole day early to inconvenienced people by giving them the wrong information.
Now, if you’re a perfectionist like me, (recovering or otherwise) my admission of these mistakes may discredit anything I’ve written up until this point. And I don’t blame you. Why would we let go of our perfectionist mindset if it just means making mistakes left, right, and centre? If this is your thought process as well (or I’m at the least in the ballpark), let me say, “I hear you.”
But humour me for a moment. Imagine a future where your own small slights, or those of others, no longer dominate your mind, threaten to derail your day, or, at worst, impact upon your sense of self. I can tell you now, it is so incredibly freeing. It may seem cliché, but making and owning our mistakes offers and teaches us so much more than frantically trying to cover them up and obliterate them from memory. I’ve discovered that it is a crucial first step in self-discovery, humility, connection, and accepting support from others.
For me, taking healthy risks despite the increased potential of making mistakes has proven to be an essential ingredient in making me a braver person. Sure, in this past week I’ve made some errors, but I also took a big and bold step forward in my career—a step that only a few months ago I hadn’t even dreamed it could be possible. I contributed a chapter to a book, written by an expert in a field I am immensely passionate about. And I admitted to not understanding a concept that was important for my personal and professional development and in turn, received essential support that served me well. None of these achievements would have been even remotely possible had I not felt safe enough to make mistakes.
Humour too has served me well along this journey. A lightness toward our once-called failures has the ability to share connection with ourselves and with others. Turning up to an appointment on time, but a whole day early because of my scheduling error left my husband and I in fits of laughter in the car in inner Melbourne (an area currently in lockdown due to COVID-19).
If that isn’t a sign of true connection in the midst of uncertainty, I don’t know what is. Because of humour, I now have space to offer myself kinder thoughts when I, or others in my life, inevitably mess up. This kindness toward accepting my own mistakes has increased my capacity for empathy when others don’t live up to my or their own expectations. In fact, I find myself judging a whole lot less, being inconvenienced a whole lot less, and generally, an awful lot happier as a result.
No longer does a failed attempt at a task equal, “I am a failure.” Rather, a simple, “Whoops! Let’s try that again,” or a “Wow, that was wrong,” emerges. Humour and kindness don’t deny that my mistake exists. In fact, they achieve the opposite in allowing it to be there in all its glory because it happened and it is real.
Also, when I refuse to deny the reality of my own mistakes, they have the capacity to teach me something, encourage me to seek out support, or even fuel a connection. My mistakes make me more human, and allowing them to be present exactly as they are also allows me to be fully present within my life, experiencing it completely.
No longer am I the editor of my life, hovering on the edge of my existence, furiously curating each moment in order to make myself and others more comfortable. Instead, I am me: fully present, fully human, and fully alive. In short, my mistakes allow me to be free.
Sure, you may say, but brain surgeons or rocket scientists can’t go around making mistakes left, right, and centre. And you may be right (although remember, they, too, are imperfect humans, albeit incredibly intelligent and gifted ones). However, my perfectionist recovery journey reminds me of an analogy I recently heard by psychotherapist, teacher, and author, Bruce Tift.
Tift used this analogy to describe the process of reembodiment, but I think it could be applied to any part of ourselves we are learning to reintegrate after denying it for a period of time. The analogy Tift shared is that of a foot, for example, that has gone to sleep after being sat on for a period of time. You know that to move freely and experience life, you need to regain feeling in that foot. In between these two moments of asleep and awake, however, as the blood flows back into the affected foot, pins and needles emerge and then may develop into intense, sometimes excruciating pain, sensations for a period of time before subsiding as sensation returns and eventually settles.
I call myself a recovering perfectionist because although I’ve passed the pins and needles stage, right now I’m in the midst of the painful circulation returning—in the I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this stage. This means that mistakes—big, small, and otherwise—are showing up for me and providing plenty of opportunity to practice my newfound responses. Although, at times, it indeed feels excruciating when I offer myself old habitual thoughts of, “What will they think of me?” or, “I am so hopeless,” there’s enough promise of freedom in those exact same moments to allow me to feel that this path is indeed the only way forward for me.
It once seemed incomprehensible that I might be perfectly content leading an imperfect life. But today, my mistakes define me less and less, and I know that to fail does not make me a failure. Sure, it’s not easy learning a whole new way of being, but I can attest it’s a far more genuine, enjoyable, and connected life I’ve found.
The only way out is through, and as my sensation returns to that once numb foot, no matter how painful it gets, I know in my heart it’s walking me right along the path to freedom.