"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
Excerpt from his speech, "Citizenship in a Republic"
April 23, 1910 - Paris, France
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks about Theodore Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" quote from his famous speech and how perfectionism is the kryptonite for living with a sense of connection, contentment and purpose. If you're not familiar with Brene Brown's work, I HIGHLY suggest you watch her Ted Talk called "The Power of Vulnerability" here. She outlines her research on shame, vulnerability, and living "wholeheartedly" in a refreshing, funny, and endearing way. I first watched her Ted Talk a few years ago after it was suggested to me by a good friend from high school. We had been very close and she knew me as a fun-loving, sassy, and live-from-the-seat-of-your-pants teenager, and she recognized that I had lost touch with that girl somewhere along the way. We had gotten together for dinner when she was in town for work and as we were catching up, I was telling her a story about how I had avoided telling a friend the truth because "I wanted to avoid confrontation". She frowned and said, "Isabel, that's not how I remember you at all." Those words coming from someone who knew me as such a free-spirit shocked me right into "Oh crap... what happened to me?" After finishing up dinner we were discussing how we were really doing emotionally (she's in the mental health field also), and I told her "I just feel anxious for no reason!" She gave me a "seriously??" look and said, "You're a therapist, you know that's not true". I knew she was right. She suggested I watch Brene Brown's Ted Talk and it was just what I needed. I think my old friend had noticed that I was sacrificing that free-spirited part of myself in order to be professional and serious (read: a PERFECTIONIST) in school and work. I was trying to "adult" too hard, and more specifically, wasn't allowing myself to be vulnerable with anyone - even myself. And even when I did let that free-spirit out and allowed her to let her hair down, I felt guilty about it.
Many people associate vulnerability with weakness, but Brene Brown's research has actually shown it is the opposite. Being vulnerable with another person is having the courage to let oneself be seen, really and truly, and embracing the fear of rejection. Everyone is scared that eventually someone is going to see them for who they really are and they're going to criticize them for it or run away. And we all have probably experienced this heartbreak at some point or another, which makes being vulnerable after being rejected that much scarier. It's why therapy is so effective - in that space, vulnerability, flaws, and one's deepest thoughts and feelings are accepted without judgment or criticism, and that's where healing truly begins. It's also why I'm allowing clients, colleagues, and friends to read in my blogs how I've struggled too; why I'm trying to set an example for others to be imperfect. We are all imperfect beings (whether we like it or not) and that needs to be ok. In fact, our imperfections are actually pretty great because they're what makes us all interesting and different. How boring would that be if we were all the same and perfect? No one wants a Stepford Wives situation happening in their neighborhood.
As Roosevelt points out, it's not the critic who counts; it's not the one watching from the stands that deserves recognition. It's the ones who put themselves out there in relationships, in creativity, and in their careers who others should watch and admire, because they are the ones who dare greatly. Sometimes they will win, and sometimes they will lose. And when they do fail - because failure is inevitable when you dare greatly - they get up, dust themselves off, and try try again.
This doesn't mean, though, that failure isn't a tough thing to stomach, and it doesn't mean that the man in the arena doesn't feel embarrassment, anger, or sadness when he is beaten. A mourning period for failures is completely understandable and actually encouraged, but this period should not discourage second, third, or fourth (etc...) tries and should include lots of self-care and compassion.
When you get right down to it, perfectionism comes from the belief that "I'm not good enough", also known as shame. Shame is sneaky and loves to be hidden deep down. Brown calls them "shame gremlins", which is a genius metaphor because shame hates the light. When we call shame out and recognize when it's trying to keep us down, it loses its power. But when shame is in full force, our brains try to pick ourselves apart and beat our flaws into submission. We think we can fix our imperfections by overcompensating. For example, many women struggle with the belief that "I'm not skinny enough" or "My body doesn't look like those on the cover of Women's Health". So we beat ourselves up and try endless diets and cardio, when in reality our bodies are perfect just as they are. Another common "I'm not good enough" belief is about productivity. We think that if we allow ourselves the time to relax and recharge, that we are lazy or we're never going to be as successful as we should be. This is exhausting! We need to first recognize the shame thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves, and respond with compassion and remember that our flaws are what make us beautiful.
Perfectionism really is an epidemic. How has this neverending need to be perfect been instilled in so many of us? Like I said earlier, we compare ourselves to those we see who seem like they have everything together. The media plays a huge role in the perfectionist epidemic, as well as those who've raised us. If your parents were critical of your best efforts or pushed you to be a straight-A student or an All-Star athlete, you probably developed those perfectionistic thoughts early on without really realizing it. Or maybe you were bullied in school and ultimately came to believe the mean things those kids said about you. These of course stick around until we're adults and we continue to beat ourselves up about our appearance, careers, parenting skills, relationships, and financial situations. This, as you can imagine, leads to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and guilt, just to name a few. Perfectionists have a high rate of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. When will it end!?
In reality, being perfect just isn't possible. But doing your best and believing that that's GOOD ENOUGH is. We need to embrace our flaws and imperfections because this is what results in us forging connections, feeling happy, and being productive. We all need to support each other in the arena, and encourage and inspire those in the stands to come join us rather than criticize. And we need to remember that failure is a part of life and can result in something even better than we had originally planned on.
So the next time you see an opportunity, get your imperfect self into the arena and kick some shame gremlin ass!