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  • Anne Cotterell

Embracing the Power of Imperfection

How does the fear of making mistakes show up in your parenting and work? Do you judge your self-worth based on your ability to strive and achieve unrelenting standards? How often do those three little words with such a big impact chime up - ’not good enough’?

There’s a big difference between healthy striving in the pursuit of excellence and the endless uphill battle of striving for perfection. When we expect perfection from ourselves and others in parenting and work, we are telling our kids and co-workers that mistakes are not ok, that our self-worth is dependent on our achievements and how others perceive us.

There are few contexts more complex and uncertain than parenting. Opening ourselves to the unpredictable nature of raising children, and letting go of our need to know and need to be right, creates an environment where we begin to grow and thrive with our kids. Embracing imperfection is the pathway to authentic parenting and leadership. It starts when we begin to recognise that our authentic value is intrinsic and cannot be defined or shaped from the outside. Only when we realise this, and that the constant pursuit of perfection is an impossible task, can we embrace and be guided by imperfection, as the constant evolution and growth of our potential. That is the undeniable power of imperfection.

To really understand the power of imperfection and how to embrace it, as a growth framework, we need to understand the differences between healthy striving and perfectionistic striving and how each shows up in our parenting and work.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a ‘self-defeating, excessive drive to achieve, that is on behalf of an intention to avoid failure. It is self-defeating in that our best is ‘never good enough’.

The origins of perfectionism often go back to our childhood and the messages we received from significant others about what was acceptable and what was not. As children, we developed a belief that our value was conditional. We may have received love, acceptance and attention for our achievements, getting things right, or disapproval, and maybe no response at all when we made mistakes or didn’t meet the expectations of significant others. Perfectionism in adulthood shows up when we take these childhood beliefs and frames into our adult lives.

We also parent and work in a society that values perfection, constantly reinforcing our perfectionistic beliefs and drives. Whether that be through body image, achievement or social standing, we internalise societies messages and in doing so often hold ourselves to unrelenting standards. We still hold our distorted childhood perceptions of significant others as judgmental and critical, so in our bid to avoid the painful feelings of shame, rejection, criticism, judgement and worthlessness, we keep ourselves accountable to the self-protective drive of perfectionism.

When we align ourselves to unrelenting standards in our parenting and work, we are choosing to define our self-worth, in relation to others – from the outside-in. Because we model this behaviour and communication we inadvertently gift our children the same world view, the same unrelenting standards, and self-belief frames – ‘it’s not ok to make mistakes’, ‘I must get it right’, ‘my worth and destiny are determined by others’.

When does this self-talk show up in you? Noticing our perfectionistic belief frames and self-talk, and the contexts within which they arise, help bring self-awareness to these unrelenting standards that operate largely out of our conscious awareness.

Perfectionistic self-talk and beliefs inform behaviour. Some examples of perfectionistic behaviour are as follows:

  • Avoiding mistakes, often resulting in procrastination, risk and change adversity

  • Inability to complete tasks, fearing that the outcome won’t live up to the benchmark, and endless time spent perfecting content

  • Inability to trust or disconnection from own inner guidance, relying on the authority of others

  • Difficulty delegating, believing that others can’t be trusted to do a good enough job

  • Comparing self with others,

  • Language of impossibility such as ‘I can’t, shouldn’t, should, must’ thereby assuming self-imposed rules that pre-suppose limited choice

  • Intense focus on the outcome, neglecting the process and so inhabiting a static mind-set rather than seeing the achievements within the learning process

So What is Imperfection?

Imperfection is a mind-set built on unconditional self-worth, where striving for excellence is considered a worthwhile endeavour even if it’s not perfect. It embraces healthy boundaries and responsibilities, self-compassion and is not subject to comparative thinking. People who embrace imperfection recognise that their self-worth and that of others is inherent, and therefore there is little drive to prove ones value in the face of others. The imperfection mind-set embraces the following liberating beliefs:

  • ‘I am worthy whether people approve of me or not, whether I succeed or not’

  • ‘It is more important to me to be true to myself than to live up to other’s expectations’

  • ‘I am ok even if I make mistakes’

  • ‘I trust that others have the capacity to do what is needed even if they do so differently to me’

When do you experience these liberating beliefs? Is this the kind of self-talk you would like your children and co-workers to embrace? Notice when you are living within the context of these liberating beliefs and when you are not. What is different for you?

As parents we shape our child’s sense of self, which informs how they engage in society – how much they define themselves in relation to others, and whether they acknowledge their inherent value within. When we embrace imperfection, we can begin to acknowledge unconditional self-worth. We feel free to take risks and learn from mistakes because we stop defining ourselves as our mistakes, as our failures. Instead of labelling our experiences, we have experiences that we learn from. We take right action and achieve with inner purpose rather than with the intention to be seen by others in a certain way.

An imperfectionist mind-set informs the following behaviours:

  • Focused on moving towards excellence versus avoiding failure

  • Mistakes are ok and seen as an integral part of the learning process

  • Embrace the language of possibility – ‘I could, choose to, may, might’, unbounded by strict self-imposed rules, instead presupposing choice and possibility

  • Delegate with confidence, and an understanding that there are multiple ways of achieving outcomes

  • Trust their own inner guidance when the answers aren’t clear

Integrating the Power of Imperfection as a Learning and Growth Framework.

The following are a couple of tips to get you started on embracing the power of imperfection in your parenting, work and relationships. You can apply these to yourself as well your children and co-workers:

  • Focus on the process and the learnings as well as the outcome. As part of the process celebrate the small wins and work with goals that are challenging but achievable. This type of goal becomes the sweet-spot for learning and motivation, both with ourselves and our kids.

  • Bring awareness to the language you are using and notice when it is limiting your choices. Using language of possibility opens you and your kids up to choices, and the various possible alternative paths to achieving an outcome

  • Practice using sensory-based feedback when acknowledging focus and persistence. Using a third person objective perspective, communicate what you heard, saw, felt, noticed rather than subjective comments such as ‘you are awesome’ and encourage others provide their own objective insights.

  • Creating safe-to-fail boundaries gives everyone the impetus to make mistakes and learn from them. This is relevant for both parenting and work contexts which are often uncertain and require us to lean into not knowing to find answers.

  • Be there to provide empathy and understanding to others and yourself when things don’t always go according to plan.

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