Lessons from a recovering perfectionist

“Courage starts with showing up and letting yourself be seen.” — Brene Brown

Courage and vulnerability. As social researcher Brene Brown has shown through decades of research, those who live whole heartedly, who are the most fulfilled, have accepted that being vulnerable, and courageous, is the key to being fulfilled.

Being vulnerable is something that I struggle with as a recovering perfectionist. As Brown says, “perfectionism is the 20 ton shield we carry around hoping it will keep us from being hurt.” Similar to mental illness, I believe perfectionism is something that you can never quite completely “cure.” But it is something that can be mitigated, moderated, and managed. Sometimes you’ll relapse, but given the right support and self-awareness, over time it’ll be easier to pick yourself up and get back on the road to recovery.

The Stages of Change Model was originally developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in the 70’s to address smoking addition and now is applied to a wide range of behaviors. (Image Source: Smart Recovery)

Often it’s a critical turning point that gives you the initial impetus for change. As the Stages of Change model above captures, contemplation is not enough, and ultimately, neither is preparation. Action is where the real change occurs. And while personal change reflects a cycle that is never-ending, that first step towards action is the key to make sure that the cycle fully activates.

My perfectionism turning point was performing in a ballet piece in front of my business school classmates at last year’s Wharton Dance Studio. A serious ballet dancer for most of my life, I had quit eight years ago from both physical and emotional burn out and had never performed since. Too many fears of not being perfect, not regaining my former technique and ability had kept me from coming back.

But as I stepped onto the stage, I finally let all it all go. The seventeen years of ballet training, the seventeen years of always feeling I wasn’t good enough as a dancer, and the eight painful years since avoiding dance, fueled by the feeling that I could never regain the not-so-great greatness of my ballet youth.

I let it go, and focused on what I felt. The excitement of performing after so many years, something I had never thought I would have again. The nervous anticipation of showing my fellow 500 Wharton students in the audience another side to me that they had never known about. And the pure joy of getting, first and foremost to dance, to let my body do something it longed to do day in, day out — to move, to fly, to express everything in the depths of my heart I rarely let be said.

And for the first time, for that five minutes in stage, I finally understood what I had been working towards those long seventeen years. As a dancer, I had never understood the joy of performing, always preferring class instead. All my life, performing meant the possibility of failure, of revealing to everyone how flawed and imperfect of a dancer I was. I had seen transcendent joy on the faces of other dancers on stage, but never related to it myself. Yet here I was, out of shape, injured, a shadow of my former highly trained self — but I was the happiest dancing on stage I had ever been. I had nothing to lose — all professional dancing hopes had already been lost. All there was left was to enjoy the moment, enjoy the opportunity and share with my community a side that few from my adult life had ever seen.

It showed. For weeks after, people I hardly knew came up to tell me how they’d loved my dancing, how I glowed and lit up on stage. It seemed ironic that eight years after I had left my dancing dreams behind that I finally, for the first time in my life, made others feel what those transcendent dancers had made me feel — inspired. And it was because I finally realized that by being truly vulnerable and showing my inner self to the world — that’s when people felt I had something to say.

It’s a lesson I hold dear and try to apply to other areas of my life, although not as much as I would like. For example, I love to write, but at this point in my career, writing publicly feels like an incredibly vulnerable thing to do — what if you’re judged for sharing your feelings, thoughts and interpretations? If you write something that is “wrong,” or “bad,” how will that impact what others think of you, of your career prospects, of your future potential?

But I’ve also learned that embracing what terrifies me is ultimately what makes me wholehearted, what makes me finally feel like me. Being vulnerable is hard, scary and uncomfortable. Many of us have been trained all our lives to put up a front, to appear perfect, to drag that shield around with us everywhere we go. Breaking those ingrained thoughts and behaviors is messy and painful, and there will be times when we relapse miserably or can’t even push past our contemplation stage. But for each of those times, the moments we do take action — like for myself, performing for the first time in many years, or even just publishing this post — give us the courage to be vulnerable and over time, learn how to truly be ourselves.

What scares you? Are there any small ways that you can take action and be vulnerable today?

Stay tuned for more posts on vulnerability and change — and how it applies to not just individuals, but also products, services, and organizations.