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The Perils of Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is an unproductive use of attention. Self-hatred will not make us better.” – Sharon Salzberg

Perfection has many faces. I’m sure you’ve seen it in yourself or in people you know in varying facades. It’s characterized by high standards of performance fueled by a fear of failure, accompanied by critical self-evaluations, and often highly concerned about what other’s think–as if the outside world holds the scorecard for one’s accomplishments or appearance or value. We can find perfection close to the bone when it shows up in the images we uphold about ourselves, and our relationship with anything that looks like failure. In the startup world, perhaps we feel our worth is measured by our ROI.

We can see our own thoughts pounce into measuring our self-worth when someone, some company, is crowned a unicorn and we’re not. What thoughts rattle in our heads then? What conversations do we have with ourselves? Are they gentle and compassionate?

I can feel an undercurrent of it in myself whenever I fall into comparison. Heaven knows the internet is perfect for going down that road to nowhere, fast. We see it in the faces online, whether it’s someone’s life’s highlight reel as glimpsed in social media, or the person whose number of ‘likes’ on their highlight reel is what fuels their sense of self-worth. I see it in highly-manicured online presences and often wonder, who’s the real person behind the polished content, the online marketing, and large mailing lists?

Delegating the measure of your worth to external sources is risky business unless you have a penchant for self-loathing. Sometimes you can almost see or feel the empty ghosts that can run someone’s life, veering them to the glossiest new thing, silently hoping to be liked, fit in, win, and get further away from their felt sense of self-loathing. Yet, for these empty vortexes (which in my mind feel like the Dementors in Harry Potter that suck the life out of you and leave you empty and cold), it doesn’t matter what glossy things, new gadgets, billions, millions, or brands are craved, brought, or desired into it’s never satisfied gullet: it’s empty because there’s nothing to hold it. Nothing external can fill that gaping void.

Warren Buffett puts it this way:

“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard. I always pose it this way, I say: “Lookit. Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?  Now that is an interesting question.””

When we fight with perfectionism, we yield the weapons of delusion towards ourselves.

We find a denial of ‘what is’ and instead find piles of delusions about who we are and the stories we tell about ourselves. It’s a space narrow and incongruent, failing to include all parts of us, failing to include our wholeness.

Ezra Bayda, in her piece in Tricycle, “No One Special To Be,” puts it this way:

“What gets in the way of this movement toward our authentic self, more than anything, is our insistence on identifying with the small self-preserving our narrow world of being special, of needing to look and feel a particular way.”

Who are we without the masks that keep us from our authentic selves? What do we tell ourselves about who we are without our masks and projected images? The incongruence of the face you front to the world and who you really are is a rejection of…who you really are. That’s an exhausting act to uphold in the up and down, left and right and back again, squiggly spaghetti line of life.

Sharon Salzberg notes in her new book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, that “Perfectionism is an unproductive use of attention. Self-hatred will not make us better.” When I began to view perfectionism as a form of self-hatred, I could see how deeply it was a violence towards ourselves, running primarily on deep fear. But even more so, I could see that it is a denial of our intrinsic value as a human being and our innate lovability and belonging.

What does that do to our capacity to be with what is? How can we bear the reality of life when our delusions and masks shatter to pieces? What does this to do our capacity for resiliency?

There is you and you.
This is a relationship.
The most important relationship.

– Home

-Nayyriah Waheed

The self-hatred bred of perfectionism keeps us disconnected from the relationship you have with yourself. This most important relationship, which is paramount and oft-forgotten, leads you to have an inner scorecard type of life met with your creative agency and ability withstand the tides. In Jerry’s conversation with Sharon in this episode of the Reboot Podcast, they talk about love as a counter-intuitive counterpoint to our harsh tones of perfectionism.

Self-compassion combats the vapid perfectionism rampant in our culture, and startup cultures. The essence of love is an undemanding presence in life, in rapport with yourself at such a level that you have an inner locus of knowing who you are. Love is not performance; it’s presence. Not your ROI; your innate worth as a human. Wrote James Baldwin: “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Changing your stance in life from fitting into a box of perfection to a more generous stance of love brings us back to wholeness and fosters a resiliency that’s got room for everything the spaghetti line of life brings us.


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