Sometimes, the right book comes at the right time. In my case, it is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It came into my life at a difficult time. A family crisis showed me the limits of seeking perfection and others’ approval.
I found myself marking up and dog-earing that book in a way I haven’t done since college. Although The Gifts of Imperfection is a short book, it is a dense one. Every one of those 130 pages of content demanded careful reading. What I read challenged everything I was brought up with as a child.
In my youth, I was rewarded for being perfect. I was praised for being perfect in school, including getting a 4.0 GPA in high school. I was valued for what I achieved, whether it was my bar mitzvah or earning my Eagle Scout. I was loved for being a good little boy and doing what I was told.
I don’t regret the choices I made, and I wouldn’t take back the things I’ve accomplished. At the same time, I must also look at the downsides of these experiences. I grew up feeling that love had to be earned, and it could be taken away if I didn’t live up to expectations. I became afraid to take risks because failing would make me look like less of a person. I feared standing up to people because rejection would be too painful. I felt that I had to keep accomplishing things, keep working harder, keep giving more, and keep my feelings to myself to be acceptable to others and myself.
That’s why I chose the “I Love Reseda” sticker as my bookmark. While I value my experiences growing up there, I also recognize that this is where my problems with perfectionism began.
Brené’s book showed me how our desire for perfection and approval works against the outcomes we seek. When we try to be perfect, we may hide our faults or blame others instead of making changes in ourselves to be better. When we demand perfection from others, we may resort to shaming, comparison, and resentment instead of holding people accountable. We don’t give them to tools to change, and when they don’t, we turn into resentful martyrs. When we push ourselves to be more productive, we burn ourselves out to the point we can’t do any more.
Instead, Brené proposes a wholehearted life. Through our faults, we can cultivate courage, compassion, and connection with others. Love isn’t something we must earn, but something we can cultivate and grow. We can love ourselves now where we are and for who we are — not when we lose ten pounds or buy a new car. She also showed that rest and play aren’t frivolous. They are necessary for our health and overall productivity. Honesty, acceptance, gratitude, and trust can help us live fuller lives.
It’s easier to say than do. I’ve been practicing perfectionism for a long time. Recognizing my mistakes and knowing there are alternatives is the first step. This is why The Gifts of Imperfection is the right book at the right time.