The Paradox of Self-Acceptance and Perfectionism / by Michelle Sander

I often have conversations where I gently encourage a growth mindset and self-acceptance. Being OK with trying new things, doing things you aren’t great at (yet), and daring to “ship it” and put it out there even when you just might fail.

Perhaps 1 out of every 10 conversations — yep, I don’t shut up about this stuff — I run into someone who at the end of the conversation says, “Well, I’m a perfectionist. It’s just the way I am.”

I’m here to tell you, that’s the same as saying, “I’m a racist. It’s just the way I am.” I’m not saying that to be provocative, rather, I’m saying that to illustrate an idea. Like racism, perfectionism is learned and it can be overcome through reasoning and changes in judgement and decision-making frameworks. It’s a tendency toward specific assumptions about yourself and the world around you.

Perfectionism is a framework for understanding yourself, your behavior and performance, and where you fit in this big, oft-confusing the world.

Brene Brown likens perfectionism is a 20-ton shield. (Watch the talk about it.) It protects us, sure, but it also it makes it difficult to connect with others and is exhausting to carry around all the time. I like to think of it as a security blanket. I was so close to taking that worn-down square to college (the University of Utah’s selective Modern Dance program). I didn’t, however, but I did take my perfectionism and I wore it like a badge of honor.

The badge held me back more often than not from auditioning when I thought I wasn’t ______ enough. The blank was filled in with an endless supply of adjectives. Over time, the blank disappeared and what perfectionism left me with was simply, “I’m not enough.”

It took years for me to realize that I didn’t treat myself with the same regard that I treated strangers on the street, let alone friends. For others I would chime, “It’s the journey. It’s the trying. The bravery is in the speaking up, the pressing Send, the reaching out for the hand come what may.” But for me it was different. For me, I: “needed to know better,” “should’ve seen it coming,” “made the mistake yet again,” “would never learn.”

My inner dialogue was filled with black-and-white thinking — also called all-or-nothing thinking or dichotomous thinking — “should” statements, and frankly a lack of compassion for myself and my story: the hallmarks of a fixed mindset and a lack of self-compassion.

So, (and maybe you’ve been waiting for this part) how did I change it?

Practice, lots of practice. Seeing yourself as a WIP (work in-progress) means everything is practice. It’s all learning. It’s all growing. With practice and with a lot of help from friends, and from family, and from my therapist, Diana, I learned that while perfectionism is saying, I’m not enough today and tomorrow will never come; self-acceptance is saying, I tried my best today and I’m going to try my best to practice on x and y for tomorrow and that’s enough. I’m enough.