Embracing Imperfection

Dr. Amanda Lynne Quinby
August 2023

If you’re like most therapists, you have probably worked with a few clients who have struggled with perfectionism.  Most of us with student clients are all too familiar with supporting someone who is genuinely distraught and calling themselves a failure due to receiving a B in a class instead of an A. Yet other forms of perfectionism are harder to notice, particularly when we ourselves have maybe fallen prey to the same perfectionism traps.

For example,  have you ever been asked to bring a dish to a potluck? If so, what choices did you make around this? Did you choose option A: spending hours online researching recipes, trying to figure out what everyone might like, or spending hours in the kitchen making an incredibly complicated dish? Or did you choose option B: giving yourself permission to make something easy that you’ve made a hundred times, or even buying something from the store that was already pre-made? I know that I’ve fallen into option A before, as have many of my clients, and friends.  The sad part is that many of us view option A as the only option, and anything less as selfish or lazy. Suddenly a simple decision around a potluck turns into a personal moral failing.

Lazy is an interesting word; an adjective defined by Merriam-Webster as “disinclined to activity or exertion.” Yet many of the individuals I see calling themselves lazy, both personally and professionally, are incredibly hard-working.  Lazy becomes a personality label by which we all judge ourselves or a standard we hold ourselves to. Yet, this labeling destroys our self-confidence, paralyzes us, and prevents us from engaging in values-based action. By equating the word lazy with failure, we ignore the feelings someone is experiencing underneath their so-called “lazy” behavior. When we engage in “lazy” behavior, it is often because we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, burned out, exhausted, etc. However, instead of listening to and honoring those feelings, we ignore or push through them at the cost of our well-being to avoid being seen as lazy by ourselves and others.

None of us come out of the womb seeking perfectionism or calling ourselves lazy.  We learn this language through family, friends, colleagues, social media, and society.  Unfortunately for women in particular, there is the message that we should be able to do it all and have a smile on our faces. If we can’t, then something is inherently wrong with us. It is assumed that we should be able to grocery shop, make food for the week, see anywhere between 20-30 clients per week, take care of the kids, clean our homes, see our friends, make time for our partners, engage in hobbies, exercise, meditate, go to the doctor, take care of our pets, all while maintaining smiles on our faces.  We often hold ourselves to this impossible standard without even realizing it.

Even more insidiously, perfectionism can show up without obviously harsh language, making it even more difficult to identify. This past fall, my partner and I had tickets to a football game in town. When game day came around I was exhausted from the week, it was rainy and cold, and there was a wind advisory due to 50 mph winds. I deliberated for several hours whether I still wanted to go to the game, going back and forth in my mind trying to make a decision until I had exhausted myself even further.  At that point, my non-therapist partner gently noted that it seemed like I was being hard on myself.  I was confused, given that I wasn’t beating myself up for being tired, or telling myself I would be a failure if I didn’t go to the game. His response was, “It seems like you’re trying to make the perfect decision.” Cue facepalm emoji. I decided not to go to the game. My first takeaway from that experience was that either decision would have been completely fine. It was apples versus oranges, not right versus wrong. My second takeaway? We’re all human and susceptible to perfectionism, even us therapists.

So what is the antidote to perfectionism? In her book “Self-Compassion” (2011), Kristin Neff breaks self-compassion down into three components:

  • Self-Kindness vs Self-Judgment
  • Common Humanity vs Isolation
  • Mindfulness vs Over-Identification

What does this actually look like in practice?  

  1. Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love and care about. If a friend came to you, expressing overwhelm and guilt for not being able to take on more clients, you likely wouldn’t say, “You really should take on those new clients. There’s such a dire need, and what are those people going to do if you don’t take them on?” That would likely feel unsupportive at best, and cruel at worst.  Instead, you would most likely say, “Girl, I get it,”  “You need to take care of yourself first,” or, “I know a few therapists taking clients who you can send people to.”  Say to yourself what you would say to your friend.
  2. Connect.  Talk with others.  See that others are going through the same thing you are.  We often feel like others have it all together, and we’re the only ones struggling, even though that’s simply not the case. When we isolate ourselves, it allows room for those thoughts of being alone in our experience to grow.  When we connect, we find out that we’re not the only ones burned out, tired, or struggling.  Books and podcasts can aid in this as well.  Read and listen to material that is validating and empowering, and that helps you to move towards being kinder to yourself.
  3. Be Aware. Try to be more aware of what you’re saying to yourself, particularly if your self-talk isn’t obviously harsh.  Catching our thoughts and patterns is half the battle.  You can work on this by incorporating a “formal” mindfulness practice into your day, namely carving out as little as five minutes a day to practice being mindful of your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations. Or you can practice more informally by pausing periodically throughout the day to briefly notice your thoughts or feelings, or what you’re feeling in your body. Choose a practice that will be sustainable for you in the long run.

These past few years have been particularly hard on all of us, albeit in different ways.  We’ve been through a lot, endured a lot, and for many of us, we are just now feeling like we’re coming out on the other side.  We deserve to be kind to ourselves, to lower the high bars that we have set for ourselves, and to allow ourselves to not just be therapists, but imperfect and wonderful human beings as well.

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