Perfect Is An Illusion: How Perfectionism Keeps Us Stuck

Photo by Maria Eduarda Tavares on

I have a question for you, today. What is it in your life that you are trying to get perfect right now?

Is it your appearance?

Is it the work that you do?

Is it the words that you say…or write…or the posts that you create on social media?

Is it one or more of the roles that you play in the movie that is your life? Are you striving to be the perfect parent? The perfect partner? The perfect friend?

Allow me to share with you my own perspective on perfectionism.

What does it mean to be perfect or to have a perfect something?

A perfect body.

A perfect family.

A perfect job.

A perfect life.

I think perfect does exist, though likely not in the ways that you have been thinking about it up to this point. Perfect only exists in our minds.

Think about that. I mean, truly think about it.

Perfect is a thought.

For most of us, it’s an illusion.

And I believe it’s an illusion closely tied to two areas that we struggle with a great deal. Self-worth and people-pleasing.

Before we go further, I want you to know that this is not your fault. You are not to blame for continuously seeking perfection. You’ve been programmed from a very young age by your parents, your teachers, and society that you need to be perfect in order to be lovable.

Yuck. Even just saying that out loud makes me cringe.

And for the most part, the people in your life who have loved you the most have been well-intentioned. They meant well by challenging you to stretch outside your comfort zone and to win all of the competitions. They showered their beliefs upon you that you were born for greatness.

It isn’t so much that it’s a bad thing to do that with children. I’m not saying that it is. As with anything, there can be a healthy balance of unconditional love and teaching children to take bold risks and explore their passion. This can exist. Though even if it does, that doesn’t guarantee you will turn out perfect.

Should parents lift their children up and shower them with praise when they do well? I mean, I’m all for that approach as a means of building self-esteem, but I think we have to be careful about creating an environment of love with conditions.

As long as you do well, you will receive my love.

If you don’t perform to my expectations, I’m going to let you know that.

So, I want you to think back to your childhood and see if you can identify moments that may have helped to shape your perfectionist mindset.

For me, I would have to bring home all A’s on my report card. If I got a B, even a B+ which is still above average (and was fine with me, especially in math), my dad would express deep disappointment.

He would say things like, “You’re capable of more. I don’t want to see another B.”

Of course, my teachers would have the same expectations. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent the first sixteen years of my life growing up in a very rural area – one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and they have for generations. That meant my teachers had grown up with my dad. Most of them had all gone to school together. They knew whose kids belonged to who and carried those expectations over.

It wasn’t just academics, either. If there was a class play, I would be given the biggest part (whether I wanted it or not), because my teachers would say, “I know you’ll study and get the lines right.” And so, I did. Every time.

Elementary and middle school is where I learned to get over stage fright, no doubt.

And because I would in fact, not only nail my lines every time, but memorize the entire script and be able to prompt my classmates with their lines, I would earn praise. And awards. And accolades.

I would be rewarded with acceptance and sometimes, adoration.

This would drive me to sign up for the hard things and stretch outside my comfort zone. That was scary AF, but I did it anyway.

I did it because the praise, awards, and accolades would be waiting for me on the other side of discomfort.

I did it to please all of the people.

Yes, I could memorize lines, and I could learn choreography of dance, but it was extremely uncomfortable to audition and either try freestyle or improv. That’s when I would choke. Because I needed everything to be perfect and I needed to know how before I could do something even moderately well.

This is important, and I think a lot of us struggle in this area, so keep that in mind and I’ll come back to it later. 

Perhaps one of the highest profile examples I can think of in the area of perfectionism with underlying people-pleasing and self-worth is Tiger Woods’ story.

My husband and I just finished the docuseries “Tiger” last weekend. It was such an amazing film study for me, honestly. And yes, I got emotional watching it. Of course, I knew what was coming for Tiger as I watched his ascension play out from clips going all the way back to him as a toddler, swinging his golf club like a pro.

It was fascinating to watch all of the home movie clips that later morphed into broadcasts of the early games where he made history. Watching this unfold, when I knew what was coming. I knew he would eventually cave to all of the pressures of perfection that had been placed upon his shoulders…by the entire world. I watched it with so much compassion for Tiger.

Because, of course, it all started with his father.

This is in one of the trailers for the film and the movie opens with Earl Woods delivering this speech where he says:

“Please forgive me, but sometimes I get very emotional when I talk about my son. He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. This is my treasure. Please accept it and choose it wisely.”

Wow. That’s a heavy load of expectations. And indeed, Earl’s voice is shaking when he says this. He is very emotional in his delivery. It’s so haunting to hear in the background while videos of Tiger are rolling on the screen.

At one point, his parents are being interviewed and Earl mentions that if Tiger had picked up on bowling instead, then that’s what he’d be doing. But I’m not sure I believe that. Because Tiger’s mom is sitting right beside Earl on the couch when he says that, and she gives him quite the side eye. Also, a 10-month-old holding a bowling ball, even the lightest one available, isn’t going to go well. Let’s be honest.

Tiger was groomed. He was created. We know the rest of the story. We know how he eventually crumbled. Because Tiger is also a human.

He’s a perfectly imperfect human being who learned to tie the love and acceptance of others to his performance on the golf course. He could never just be himself, and he probably didn’t even know who “himself” really was.

His perfection was an illusion. Not just to the world, but also inside of him.

Think about it. Everything was perfect for Tiger. He had the perfect life, from the outside looking in. Until he didn’t. Which makes one wonder, was it ever perfect for him? Did he ever get to be himself or know himself while he was acting his part with perfection? Did he really have it ALL? And what does “having it all” even mean?

I’m so curious about that.

Of course, this is an extreme example, but I’m using it because it’s a well-known story that everyone should be able to identify with.

I highly recommend this film. You can find it on HBO.

Why do we try so hard to be seen as perfect in the eyes of others?

Again, I think it’s for one of two reasons, and sometimes both. Either you feel like a whole and worthy human if you perceive yourself as perfect in whatever area of your life you are seeking to be just that. Or you seek validation from others, which is a way of leveraging your people-pleasing tendencies to fill your cup of self-worth.

I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure these two can be separated. Maybe they are like Siamese twins that can’t survive with separation.

In fact, one of my favorite books on the topic, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown supports this. I honestly can’t do better at explaining it than she does, so I’ll share a quick excerpt here that she describes as the myths about perfectionism.

  • Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
  • Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – what will they think?

Well, then. What a perfect explanation! Pun intended.

You see, “perfect” is really something nebulous that we humans have crafted in our minds that if we can only be, do, or have, then our lives will be better. We will be happy, and we will feel whole and complete.

So many of us fail to realize that we can choose to have those feelings right now by shifting our thoughts in that direction.

What the fuck are we waiting for?

Well, I’ve mentioned Brené’s analogy of that twenty-ton shield before, I’m sure. It becomes almost a protective mechanism and a way to rationalize why we aren’t ready to do the thing just yet because we either might make a mistake along the way or we need to learn more or practice more before we put ourselves out there.

Because indeed…what will other people think? What will they say about me? And ultimately, it’s not about what they think or say, but how we are going to feel about ourselves at the end of the day…usually tied directly to what they are thinking or saying.

So, we don’t even try, or we keep putting off our dreams because taking the risk feels scarier than staying stuck and doing nothing.

We don’t want to feel anxious or scared, so we avoid the thoughts that generate those emotions.

What we fail to recognize is that those very emotions can also fuel us forward. Those sensations in your body represent energy. How are you using it? Are you willing to ride that wave, or would you rather stay off the beach entirely, and hide under the covers in your room?

Think of riding a wave. I mean, I have no idea what that’s like, but let’s just summon some visualization here.

You have no idea where that wave is going to take you. The best thing that you can do is enjoy the ride. Go with the flow. Have FUN along the way, without worrying so much about getting it right or getting it perfect the first time.

There are so many things in life that we can apply this to if we’re simply willing to be vulnerable. Even a bit audacious.

Let me share a time where I absolutely froze because I was too wrapped up in the “how to” of it all. I said I was going to come back to this idea of just doing it anyway and ditching the perfection that you’re clinging to.

I’m going to go way back, because the first time I can remember that I absolutely choked was auditioning for a talent show in sixth grade. And no, it certainly wasn’t the last.

Remember, I grew up in the literal sticks, so there weren’t many extracurricular activities outside of sports. We did have a 4-H club. And no, it’s not all about showing off your farm animals at the local state fair. Our club was pretty active, and our leader had enrolled us in talent competitions. We would start at the school level, then compete with other schools in the county, region, and eventually the state, if we made it that far. It was actually something that our school had never done before, so it was a brand-new concept all around.

Well, I’m going to date myself here, but I’ve made no secret that I grew up in the 80’s if you’ve been paying attention to my references here and there.

It was the year that Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was absolutely exploding, and so the plan for our age group was to recreate the performance of the Thriller video. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be a part of that! I couldn’t wait to be one of the zombies and learn that dance and perform it everywhere.

However, the auditions were brutal. That was my thought then, and I am recalling now exactly how mortified I was to learn that I had to get up on stage with 4-5 other kids and just…freestyle dance to whatever random pop music the 4-H director was playing at the moment.  

Well, I had no fucking clue how to do that. That’s what I told myself. I had thoughts like, “Look just give me the script to memorize – you know I can do that. Show me the moves, and I’ll learn them to perfection. But telling me I have to make something up as I go…well, that’s absolute torture!”

And so, I froze. I barely moved on that stage. I think I tapped my feet back and forth, maybe I swayed a little bit. It was abysmal, I can assure you. I knew I was bombing, but I couldn’t get out of my head how stupid I must have looked to the judges.

Now, this was a pretty informal audition in an otherwise empty gymnasium, which is where our stage was. I just knew I was being evaluated on something that I was horrible at, and I damn near came close to giving up before I even started.

Can you relate? Do you know that feeling?

I had been on that stage many times before and I had performed in plays and I had always nailed my lines. But now, I had no lines and I had no choreography to follow, I was just supposed to dance…freestyle.

Yes, indeed, it was mortifying.

The next day, everyone who had auditioned was called back to the gym and we all sat on the bleachers and held our breath, hoping for our name to be called as having made the cut. One by one, the names of my classmates were called, and they would step onto the floor and take their spot in the front row. Then the second row. Then the third row. I think there were five rows total…like 25 spots. Maybe 30. And maybe 50 of us had tried out.

Now, as they got to the back row, and I knew there were only five spaces left…then four…then three, I was literally dying inside, because this was everything in my world back then. It’s all that I wanted in life. To perform in a re-enactment of Thriller and to have us do so well that we’d go all the way to the state fair to compete.

And I can assure you that my negative self-talk game was already strong by the age of 12. I was absolutely beating myself up for not having tried harder at the audition. And my tender, young soul was absolutely crushed when Shannon the Spaz had her name called with only 2 spaces remaining. My friends and I would always talk about uncoordinated she was. The girl couldn’t even walk without tripping over her feet. She was that kid.

Just when I was looking for a way to make a quick exit and avoid the utter humiliation of being such a loser, my name was called. Dead last. Last remaining spot. Behind Shannon the Spaz. Because, of course, the way they had everyone lined up, their best performers were in the front row, and the worst of us were in the very back, where hopefully we wouldn’t fuck it up for the entire group.

I did make it.


And in hindsight, maybe I only made it because those adults knew of my potential. Who knows? The point is, I almost missed that opportunity and the experience that followed completely because I was too far up in my head about making a fool out of myself just to take the chance.

What happened next? Well, as if to prove my own point, I really buckled down and learned the dance moves.  And with each week of practice, I got better. I showed up early and I stayed late. The director started shuffling us around. I moved up a row one week. Then two rows a couple of weeks later. By the time our first performance came around, I was in the front row, just to the right of Michael himself (who was really a very thin girl with dark, curly hair and an olive skin tone because we had zero diversity in that little country school – she was perfection, though).

When the competition started, we won our county. Then we won district, and we finally found ourselves performing at the state fair, which was a very big deal for all of us. We came in second place. I can’t even remember what hack act beat us out, but it didn’t matter. We were officially a big deal and we had done something that our school had never done before.

That experience was everything. Obviously, because all of these years later, I still have such fond memories of it all. It was fun. We were all full of energy and excitement every time we performed, and we won. Again, and again. It was joyful.

And I almost didn’t get to be a part of it, because I was too afraid of looking like a fool in order to get my foot in the door.

Do you have a similar story? I’m sure you do. Did you barely make the cut, or did you freeze and run off stage because you were so afraid of what people would think if you didn’t show up perfect?

I think it’s important to mention here that I don’t believe it’s helpful to point fingers or shift blame to the people in your life, especially those in your formative years, who had a hand in shaping your perception of the world and of yourself.

For example, I don’t blame my dad for demanding all A’s from me. If I’m being honest, he was right in the fact that I was capable of the honor roll. Certainly, in grade school.

We simply need to look through a lens of awareness and honestly be matter of fact about it.

Oh, my tendency to do this stems in part from that, but more than anything, from my thoughts about me.

That’s what is most important now. What really matters is how YOU perceive yourself and your own abilities to rise up and move forward. Sometimes that will mean taking chances and stretching way outside of your zone of genius and comfort.

It means letting go of the need to always fit in, because that is what keeps you small. That is what keeps you stuck.

As Brené says, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

Where are the places in your life right now that you are trying to fit in instead of belonging? Instead of recognizing and owning the truth of what you really want from this life over what other people think? Where can you take more risks and set aside your need to get it right; to have a perfect performance the first time? And most importantly, what experiences are you missing out on by not even trying?

“Your radiance shines in every atom of creation yet our petty desires keep it hidden.”

– Jelaluddin Rumi

If you are waiting to feel like you have all of the answers, that you know all of the right steps to take, and that you can execute flawlessly, then you’re doing it wrong. This life is filled with amazing experiences, and we are meant to find our joy in the journey itself, not at the destination.

Your idea of perfect is only what you see in your mind’s eye. You have no idea what others see in you. Sure, you may know what they tell you, but even that is open to question. Everything is accessible to you through your own curiosity. Try it sometime. You may actually surprise yourself. And ultimately, your opinion is the only one that matters! Never forget that.

I know I share some of my stories here, and I do that with the intent of finding things you could possibly relate to, not with the intent of dwelling on past experiences or trying to pick apart why we turned out the way that we did. Feel free to explore that with your therapist.

What I want to do is just show you the window to the why…just enough that you can find an awareness, and then get to the work of opening the door for that whole human – full of life, love, and yes, belonging.

Because you will be living in your own authenticity.

You will always be a work in progress. You will surely make a few more mistakes along the way. If you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing. If you aren’t having fun on your journey, you aren’t even trying.

So, put down your 20-ton shield and get to the business of embracing all that this life has to offer you, as a perfectly imperfect soul.

I can’t wait to see you show the world what you are truly capable of!

This post is a partial transcript of my podcast, What Lights You Up – Episode 43. I invite you to enjoy the full episode and subscribe on Spotify or Apple! 

2 Replies to “Perfect Is An Illusion: How Perfectionism Keeps Us Stuck”

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