Why I Stopped Pretending to Be Perfect
When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I worked very hard to make sure that others believed I was perfect. In fact, I became a master at living as my Performing Self—a self I created as a shield to guard myself against the negative judgments I thought others would have about the real me.
The self I created was all about appearing flawless—strong, confident, positive, and successful. In my attempt to be perceived as perfect, I conformed in how I dressed, how I spoke, how I behaved, who I associated with, the content I shared, the activities I engaged in, and more (in key areas that I call the Seven Behavioral Dimensions). My conformity was exacerbated because of my work life—I worked in an elite legal environment, where the bar was set high in every area, and the criteria for “fitting in” was both narrow and fixed.
During these years, I did a mix of things to mask what I perceived to be my “imperfections”: I fixated on dressing impeccably to signal class privilege, attractiveness, and that I had my shit together. In what I shared with others, I hid insecurities about my abilities, my cultural background, and my socioeconomic roots. I also conformed in how I spoke so that I’d fit in with certain social groups (taking on a more formal tenor, dropping the pitch of my voice, and using fancier words—essentially, speaking the Queen’s English).
I didn’t want anyone to see my imperfections or my vulnerabilities. I desperately wanted to fit in, and I wanted to protect myself from the pain of being negatively judged by others. All the while, I felt deeply flawed, damaged, and effed up on the inside.
And let me tell you—it was exhausting.
Protecting My Wounds
When I think about why I was so dedicated to upholding this image of perfection, I know it’s connected to the feelings of social alienation, rejection, and inferiority that I felt because of the childhood bullying I experienced and the parenting I received. On childhood bullying—a lot of research has been done about its numerous long-term impacts. In short, bullying can have a profound adverse impact on mental health and other areas for those who experience it.
Being bullied because of who I was (Brown, smart, and not as wealthy as the other kids), coupled with messages from my parents that I needed to be quieter, less outspoken, and less expressive (to be someone other than who I was), caused me to carry feelings of woundedness and worthlessness into adulthood.
It’s no wonder I wanted to protect myself from feeling more of this pain. But the truth is that, instead of protecting me, striving for perfection was actually causing more damage, because I wasn’t living my truth.
While I’ve come a long way in embracing my imperfections and allowing them to show by being my authentic self, from time to time I’ll catch myself saying some version of, “I’m so fucked up,” and berating myself for my flaws. My boyfriend will often catch me when I’m self-flogging and remind me that I’m “amazing” just the way I am and that everyone is imperfect—and that it’s possible to be both imperfect and amazing.
A lot of us do this to ourselves. We believe we should be perfect, and we measure ourselves against that impossible standard. While believing this, we also worry that if we show others that we don’t live up to this standard, we’ll experience rejection and alienation. But every single one of us is imperfect. Or, as I like to say, perfectly imperfect and imperfectly perfect. The greatest gift we can give ourselves is the acceptance of this fact.
Transformative things happen when we accept our imperfections. Firstly, we can then practice self-compassion: that is, show ourselves the compassion we would show others, which has numerous mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. Dr. Kristin Neff in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself teaches that self-compassion flows from both being kind to ourselves and recognizing our common humanity—that each of us is imperfect and experiences suffering.
Secondly—and this is one of the core teachings of my book, The Authenticity Principle—when we accept our imperfections, we’re better able to practice authenticity. When we’re committed to living as our whole, true, authentic selves (the good, bad, and ugly), we’re free of the exhausting dance that is performing. And when we’re tuned in to our authenticity, we know how to behave at any given moment because we’re anchored to our values. We no longer have to pour our energy into being, doing, and saying what we think others want us to. We’re free to be imperfect.