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How To Repurpose Perfectionism

Updated: May 4, 2023

What does repurposing perfectionism mean? To me, it means taking the energy that perfectionism demands and redirecting it towards your vitality, creativity, humanity, excellence, community, and purpose. I invite you to explore how perfectionism impacts three areas of your life:

1. Lived Experience (Physical Body):

Q: What physiological purpose might perfectionism serve in the first place?

Taking a from-the-body-up approach, we know that the nervous system is a giant filing system consistently filtering data about the world around us and within us. Its aim is to secure our physiological survival. At some point, our body may have perceived perfectionist behaviours as ones that help keep us alive and connected to others. In this case, 'alive' is enough insofar as we're not dead and connected is plenty insofar as we're not abandoned to the now metaphorical wolves.

Based on what I support coaching clients with and what I continue to actively recover from myself, the physical cost of anxiety-inducing perfectionism is high. It can include chest-constricting overwhelm, nail biting, tension headaches, irritability, dysregulated sleep, altered hunger cues, gastrointestinal issues, tendencies towards overwork, rumination, vulnerability within relational power dynamics, and/or different forms of burnout.

Q: How might practicing imperfection offset these costs and support your nervous system's capacity to adapt to change (aka your nervous system's flexibility)?

To me, practicing imperfection means looking for opportunities, places, experiences, and people that welcome your whole self. Why? Because 'not dead' is fundamentally different from happy, at ease, at peace, free, thriving, fulfilled, deeply connected, well-supported, or even fully alive (metaphorically speaking).

By intentionally practicing imperfection in small doses or in low-risk situations, we can gradually provide the nervous system with more up to date info. We can rest knowing that moving away from perfectionist behaviours does not threaten our physical safety. Low-risk examples may include: leaving a typo in a social media caption, starting an enjoyable hobby that you're not 'good' at, changing a work out routine, or deciding that, as my partner taught me, a deliverable is Good Enough and you're Moving On (GEMO).

2. Societal Experience (Mental Body):

Q: What societal rewards might perfectionism convince us it offers though?

Depending on how you've been socialized, perfectionism has likely promised and offered real and perceived rewards in your personal and professional lives. Whatever the case may be, perfectionism demands that we strive for a social ideal. Importantly, social ideals do not exist in political or socio-economic vacuums. (Yes, we'll absolutely come back to this in a future article.)

The less in proximity you are to these implicit and explicit ideals, the more fiercely you are expected to cage your humanity in the pursuit of a 'perfection' that forever remains slightly out of reach. The closer you are to them, the more you're expected to asphyxiate your authenticity to enforce the cost not fulfilling this ideal on others.

3. Emotional Experience (Emotional Body):

Q: Still, what emotional purpose might perfectionism serve?

Perfectionism is often portrayed as the road toward excellence, success, status, as well as the more emotionally visceral belonging and acceptance. In reality, this pressure threatens us with perceived and real emotional costs in our relationships, financial costs in our work, and, depending on how you embody our identities, physical costs to our safety.

Q: How might practicing imperfection lead to greater connection, then?

By practicing imperfection, we intentionally free our full humanity from being held hostage by impossible standards. Honouring our own imperfect truths makes room for others to honour and share theirs. This creates deeper connections, which can form the basis of communities that help us navigate the real and perceived costs of stepping outside the norm.

So, where do we go from here? To repurpose perfectionism *your* way, I invite you to consider these 5 questions:

1. What are the perceived rewards that perfectionism offers you?

2. What's the mental/emotional/physical cost of these rewards today and in the long run?

3. How might you separate perfectionism from excellence/drive/commitment/preparation?

4. What might practicing imperfection as a form of rest create space for in your personal/professional lives and your community?

5. What's one area of your life where you can begin an imperfection practice and how can you meet yourself with loving kindness through this growth-promoting challenge?

If you want a coaching partner to find *your* answers to these questions, let's chat !

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