This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Why is the idea of perfectionism so dangerous to your mental health? How can perfectionism cause “life-paralysis?” What are Brené Brown’s three steps to overcome perfectionism?
Perfectionism is dangerous because it’s founded on completely unrealistic expectations. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be perfect. to truly embrace Wholehearted living, you need to be able to overcome perfectionism.
Here are Brené Brown’s three tips for overcoming perfectionism.
Brené Brown’s second guidepost for living Wholeheartedly is to overcome perfectionism. You may see perfectionism as a form of healthy self-improvement. It’s often framed as “trying to be the best version of yourself.” However, perfectionism is really about trying to control people’s perceptions of you. It’s an attempt to gain approval and acceptance from others by hiding your flaws and projecting the image of being perfect.
The purpose of projecting this perfect image is to avoid facing shame, blame, and judgment from others. Perfectionism tells you that people won’t have a reason to direct these emotions at you if they think you’re perfect.
For example, perfectionism in the workplace may take the form of hiding the fact that you sometimes struggle with your tasks, get stressed, or make mistakes. You do this because you want to project the image of being the “perfect worker.” You believe that this will ensure you avoid facing shame, blame, and judgment from your boss or colleagues.
The Dangers of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is dangerous because it’s founded on completely unrealistic expectations. No matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be perfect. We all make missteps and struggle at times. Consequently, cultivating an image of perfection is impossible. None of us can hide our mistakes and imperfections all of the time. Likewise, you’re never going to be able to fully avoid shame, blame, or judgment. We all experience these emotions at some point.
However, the perfectionist mindset won’t concede that it sets unrealistic standards. Instead, it makes you believe that you didn’t manage to project perfection because you weren’t good enough. You didn’t work hard enough, please people enough, or hide your flaws well enough.
This attitude causes you to blame, shame, and judge yourself. You end up experiencing the painful thoughts and emotions that you thought perfectionism would repel; thoughts and emotions that are going to do real harm to your sense of worth. For this reason, perfectionism can’t feature in a Wholehearted life.
Perfectionism and Life-Paralysis
Another of perfectionism’s harmful effects is its tendency to bring on “life-paralysis.” Life-paralysis is being so afraid of doing things imperfectly that you don’t do them at all. You turn down exciting opportunities and refuse to pursue your dreams because you’re terrified of making a mistake, failing, or becoming a disappointment. For example, if you’re offered a promotion at work, you may reject it because you’re afraid that you’ll struggle in the new role or won’t be able to fulfill your new responsibilities “perfectly.”
If you suffer from life-paralysis, you’re inevitably going to miss out on achievements, new experiences, and joy. To take the example of rejecting a promotion, succumbing to life-paralysis means you’ll miss out on the prestige, success, money, and fulfillment that would come with this new role.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
It’s clear that to truly embrace Wholehearted living, you need to be able to overcome perfectionism. To do this, you need to take three steps:
Step 1: Accept that you, like everyone else in the world, will always be vulnerable to shame, judgment, and blame. Accepting that these emotions are universal and unavoidable takes away perfectionism’s power. After all, perfectionism is rooted in the idea that you can avoid these emotions. Once you realize that you can’t, it becomes pointless.
Step 2: Focus on developing your shame resilience. Having strong shame resilience will make the idea of experiencing shame less scary. You won’t need to avoid shame because you’ll be able to deal with it when it arises. Therefore, you’ll no longer need to engage in perfectionism.
Step 3: Practice self-compassion. Being kinder to yourself can help you to embrace your imperfections, rather than punish yourself for them or work desperately to hide them. When you think or talk about your flaws, mistakes, or struggles, try to do so without a tone of shame or criticism. For example, try to avoid such thought patterns such as “making this mistake makes me a bad person” or “if I didn’t have this flaw, I’d be worthy.”
Instead, frame your imperfections in a tender and compassionate way. For example, tell yourself, “My imperfections don’t define me or my worth,” “I don’t need to achieve perfection: I just need to do the best I can under my current circumstances,” or “It’s okay to be imperfect; everyone is.” If you can use self-compassion to convince yourself that it’s okay to be imperfect and make mistakes, you’ll eliminate the need to engage in perfectionism.
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- How to stop feeling like you're not "good enough"
- How shame affects your self-worth
- The 10 guideposts to living Wholeheartedly and cultivating worthiness