Managing Up. Blog 2. Letting go of perfection
The second of a series of video and written conversations between creative coach Auriel Majumdar and journalist Nell Block discussing the challenges of managing up and internal agency. Auriel and Nell discuss the challenges of letting go of perfection and how not to succumb to limiting assumptions of ourselves.
Last time we talked about how uncomfortable we both felt about the whole New Year, New You thing and it got me thinking about how unhelpful it is to strive for perfection. Every January we are bombarded with messages in the media suggesting that we lose weight, join a gym, travel the world and set ambitious, life changing goals but is this realistic or even desirable? The poet Matt Haig expresses this perfectly when he says:
"You don’t need a new you. You don’t need replacing every year like another iPhone. Don’t throw yourself away like another piece of plastic trash. Love the old you. Be gentle with your mind".
I think this idea of renewal is actually all about perfection and so many of us are caught up in striving to be 100% - physically fit, beautifully groomed, excellent at our jobs and relationships. ALL the time. Frankly it's exhausting. But perfectionism has one killer advantage - if everything we do has to be perfect then we can give up, stop trying because we know it's unachievable. Its paralysing. If instead we change our goal to being 'good enough', to borrow a psychological concept, then we can give things a go, knowing we might be able to get there. Imagine if I told you to run a marathon tomorrow - unless you can do it already you wouldn't even try. But if I asked you to run as far as you could and add a bit on then you might rise to the challenge because you know it's in your grasp.
Perfectionism is a sure fire way to keep yourself locked where you are and feel bad while you're doing it!
We all have an internal sense of what perfect means to us that we hold up as a benchmark to judge ourselves against. We're often our own worst critics; I know I have been in the past. Now though I try to be gentle with my mind. I think "what's the best I can do here?" and aim for that. I recognise my effort rather than judging the outcome, although I still want the results of what I do to be good ones.
Being gentle and compassionate with yourself takes practice though. Perhaps a good place to start is to notice every time you have "I'm not good enough" or "could do better" thoughts. Often these are what the American coach Nancy Kline calls limiting assumptions- things we believe that hold us back. Typically these come from things we are told as a child or shaped by work experiences. Because they're just assumptions and not facts though, we can look at them logically and decide if they are true or not.
So, is it true that you need to be perfect? Is only 100% perfection acceptable? What happens if you are just 'good enough'? Are other people really doing so much better than you? And if you decide that these limiting assumptions aren't true then of course you're free to replace them with beliefs that really help you know that your best IS probably good enough.
What do you think of that Nell? I'd love to know what you make of this whole idea of letting go of perfection and being kind to ourselves?
With Love, Auriel x
I can’t tell you how much your letter has resonated with me. I am exactly the kind of person who has strived for perfection and then admonished myself when I haven’t met my own personal, arbitrary goals of what I’ve deemed “perfect”. As an additional layer to this, I’ve often thought that if I hadn’t got everything exactly as I think it should be at the same time—career, relationship, house, fitness—then I’d somehow failed at them all, and wasn’t able to recognise my progress in any of these areas. So I cannot stress how much I have wrestled with the notion of being perfect. And now as a mother, I feel that I have even more pressure on me to strive for some, quite frankly, unachievable notion of what it means to be a perfect parent.
That said, recently when reading Phillippa Perry’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, I came across this line: “what children need is for us to be real and authentic, not perfect”. What a great phrase to allow not just parents to re-evaluate whether or not being perfect is paramount, but for all of us to recognise that if we’re constantly looking for perfection, we’re not being the authentic version of ourselves. I have found this ideal immensely soothing and helpful, as ultimately letting go of these damaging ideas can be liberating professionally and personally.
From a purely professional standpoint, I’ve realised that not being perfect and making mistakes can be a wonderful thing and produce much better work, especially in the creative field. I find that understanding where something didn’t work and then learning about how it can be improved on the next time you do it is actually massively helpful. This is absolutely something that is so useful to do when writing. When I receive feedback from an editor on my work, it can of course be uncomfortable as writing is so personal, but the end result will give me a better piece of work and I will have learned and progressed as a writer.
As you say, being kind to yourself is key, and I am starting to do that much more now but it was something I really struggled with especially in my 20s. I’ve employed a particular tactic to do this, which has meant I’m able to let go of this nebulous idea of perfection.
Instead of berating myself, I try to speak to myself as if I was a friend.
Let’s say if it was a friend telling me they thought they weren’t any good at their job because they weren’t perfect at it, I would point out what they have achieved and what skills they have to prove that what they do is always good enough and authentically them. After all, wouldn’t life be boring if everyone and everything was perfect?