A common thread appears to have emerged in my reading material over the past few months. All of it has to do with perfectionism. I am currently reading Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly”(2012), which deals with our ability to be vulnerable. One of the factors that she links to vulnerability is perfectionism. Brown describes that, “Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s the hazardous detour” (p.128). While she has not stipulated that the type of perfectionism she is describing is ‘unhealthy perfectionism’ it is apparent that it is this level of perfectionism to which she refers. Some level of perfectionism is necessary for us to achieve to our highest potential and has to do with our intrapersonal drivers. How then do we recognise when it has become that ‘hazardous detour?’
The perfectionism outlined by Brown is in relation to vulnerability and she refers to it as a “shield to protect against vulnerability”. In some instances, however, it is more than a shield; it is a full blown suit of armour – one that prevents authentic living.
Brown (2012, p.129) clearly outlines four ways of looking at perfectionism and outlines what it isn’t:
- Perfectionism is not to be confused with striving for excellence, healthy achievement and growth. It is a ‘defensive move’, the belief that if ‘we always look perfect and do things perfectly, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame.’
- Perfectionism is not self-improvement, at its core is earning approval. Most perfectionists have grown up being praised for achievement and performance and somewhere in this mix have developed the core belief that “I am what I accomplish. I will be judged by how well I accomplish it, perform, perfect, or please.” Perfectionism is ‘other’ focused – “What will other’s think if I…?” It is disempowering as ‘other’ has the control.
- Perfectionism is not the key to success – unhealthy perfectionism has a negative impact on achievement.
- Perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame-it is a form of shame. Brown concludes that ‘where we struggle with perfectionism we struggle with shame.’
Brown’s summation led me to think about what happens at the interface between perfectionism and authenticity and how this plays out for our gifted youth. Many appear to have no issues in this area, some do, and some appear to have grappled with overcoming perfectionist tendencies and made courageous decisions to be ‘real’ and present their authentic self to others. This is not easy and is often been a painful process but one which frequently results in increased resiliency and self-efficacy. A critical period when young people are faced with this choice is often at the onset of adolescence when sense of belonging and identity are key issues and youth feel particularly sensitive and vulnerable.
In closing I am reminded of one of my all time favourite children’s picture books, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams, and how the messages contained in its elegant prose relates to many of our young gifted people who struggle daily to live authentically on a daily basis in a society, which to all intents and purposes, claims to be accepting of diversity and yet at times appears to be increasingly intolerant of anyone who is different.
The conversation between Rabbit and the Skin Horse provides insight into a process in which the essence of what it is to be ‘real’, to remove the armour of perfectionism, and live as authentically as possible is explored.
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love , Parent and Lead. Penguin.
Quindlen, A. (2005). Being Perfect. Random House.
Williams, M. (1987). The Velveteen Rabbit.Avon.