There are rarely books I read that I feel I want to reflect or write about. But there is one book in particular I recently read that me feel triggered and quite simply, furious. Let me tell you why…
I had stumbled upon this TED talk by Reshma Saujani a few months ago that hit me hard and resonated with me deeply. Its main premise is that girls have been socially conditioned and raised to be ‘perfect’, while boys have been trained to be ‘brave’. I instantly felt triggered while watching it, because the notion of trying to being perfect or being a perfectionist has been a running theme ever since my college years, and it had come to the point that it was slowly ruining my life in the present. It triggered my anger as well, because I felt manipulated somehow, as if partly robbed of my own autonomy, to realize that a big part of my beliefs, thoughts and behaviours have been subconsciously shaped by my environment that I claimed had a minor influence on my precious mind.
You see, subconsciously trying to be perfect has been my ‘coping mechanism’; my longstanding attempt to avoid mistakes, failure, disappointment, being disliked, and any other negative outcomes, at all cost. But that’s not even rationally possible, no matter smart one is, and there is always a cost.
It turns out the cost was anxiety and depression to the detriment of my own psyche. The cost was feeling trapped in my comfort zone which slowly but surely became a prison of my own making. The cost was psychological barriers I built around myself that shut out any degree of vulnerability, spontaneity or discomfort. The cost was feeling a sense of paralyzing fear and intense anxiety every time I tried something new, if it even came to that. The cost was suppressing my own voice, needs and desires for fear of being wrong or not getting right. The cost was chronic overthinking and being compelled to prepare for every single thing I knew was happening in the future, because I didn’t trust myself to respond in the present. The cost was missing out on so many opportunities that felt dangerous to me but in fact were keys to growth. The cost was heaps of wasted time, trying to achieve the 100% instead of calling it good enough at 80% done. The cost was so many personal projects that have never seen the light of day because they didn’t live up to my perfect standards or that I felt they weren’t good enough. The cost was my psychological well-being of feeling miserable on the inside while everything appeared just fine on the outside. The cost was being unable to show up most of the times, because I secretly thought it had to perfect or it was pointless. The cost was inevitably living on the sidelines, even though deep down, I knew I didn’t belong there, I knew I was meant for more.
The time had come for this survival mechanism to break down and to finally switch gears to a thriving mechanism instead. It took me a month to read the book the speaker had written on the topic “Brave, Not Perfect” and reflect on all the ways I have let fear and perfectionism run my life, how long I’ve been living in my comfort zone or playing it safe as a way to cope and how it was now holding me back from growing and entering my next season of life. This demanded a closer look at the ways perfectionism shows up in everyday life in the present and how it was programmed from our experience in the past. The author calls this programming “perfect girl training” and it looks something like this…
What perfect girl training looks like:
- Being treated as fragile or weak so you end up over-protected
- Being told to be nice, follow the rules and do what you’re told, being applauded for that, or else punished for being otherwise
- Being labelled as ‘aggressive’ when you confront or stand up for something, which teaches you not to do that anymore
- Being repeatedly interrupted, talked over or silenced when you speak up, so you learn not to take up space or that your opinion isn’t important
- Learning to play it safe, enough said!
- Being expected to live up to all sorts of contradictory expectations
- And tens of other ‘micro-messages’ you grow up being exposed to -whether explicitly or implicitly- to reinforce the notion that you have to be perfect or behave in a certain way or else…
Ways it might be showing up now:
- Being apologetic for anything related to you out of shame or fear of not being liked or accepted or loved
- Being excessively afraid to be wrong or make a mistake so you end up avoiding the situation at any cost, and feeling like it’s the end of the world if you do
- Being afraid to speak up or disagree with someone so you avoid confrontation and conflict altogether
- Not standing up for yourself in moments of inconvenience
- Consciously or subconsciously seeking approval, even from people who don’t really matter
- Being too agreeable even when it hurts you or crosses your boundaries
- Having weak boundaries to begin with because you weren’t allowed to have them growing up or no one modeled them around you
- Feeling excessively anxious or nervous or triggered from any slight discomfort or inconvenience
- Feeling like a burden and so not asking for help even when you need it
- Feeling drained when working on everyone’s agenda and goals while ignoring your own
- Not being able to say no or set a firm boundary
- Being afraid to take risks or follow your dreams and ambitions out of fear of judgement, failure, wrongdoing…etc
- Have a fierce inner critic that keeps stopping you from taking action or doing what you truly want
- Being afraid to look stupid, or not pretty enough
- Giving up on things even before you try or try it once
- Feeling like you have to shrink around others
- Having lowing resilience in the face of criticism or challenges
- Feeling a sense of diminished self trust, confidence and courage
- And the list goes on once you realize the common thread…
Here’s a quote from the book that sums the message up quite well:
“Rewarded for perfection from the time we’re young, we grow up to be women who are terrified to fail. We don’t take risks in our personal and professional lives because we fear that we’ll be judged, embarrassed, discredited, ostracized, or fired if we get it wrong. We hold ourselves back, consciously or unconsciously, from trying anything that we’re not certain we’ll ace to avoid the potential pain and humiliation. We won’t take on any role or endeavor unless we are certain we can meet or exceed expectations. We want to be perfect before we even try. The need to be perfect holds us back in so many ways.
Letting go of the fear of being less than perfect is easier than you think. It comes down to exercising your bravery muscles, one little bit at a time.”
– Reshma Saujani
“When we relinquish the punishing need for perfection—or, rather, let go of the fear of not being perfect—we find freedom, joy, and all the other good stuff we want in life. It’s time to stop giving up before we try.”
– Reshma Saujani
Freedom, joy, and all the other good stuff we want in life. Isn’t that what we seek in the end? I recently stumbled on a few readings and books that discussed the correlation between fear and desire; that fear and desire are two sides of the same coin; that on the other side of our biggest fears lay our corresponding deepest desires; that the opposite of what you fear is what you truly desire and therefore fear not having; that fear in fact is a manifestation of unexpressed and unfulfilled desire; that it is “a path back to remembering your heart’s deepest desires, and that the fastest way to release fear is to discover the desire that we have locked away inside us.”
Your fear is actually telling you what you want.
“Bravery is a muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it becomes.”
– Reshma Saujani
“As Dr. Meredith Grossman explains, one of the best ways to change what we think and believe is by changing what we do—kind of like changing from the outside in. It’s hard to believe something to be true without having the actual experience of it; seeing it in action gives you the proof. There’s no set path to “becoming brave” other than taking actions over and over again that reinforce bravery rather than fear.”
Exercising bravery muscles? I cringed when I read this sentence. Does this mean I’m going to have to confront people or speak up when I know I have to? Does this mean I need to be okay with making and living with mistakes? Does this mean I need to get comfortable with discomfort and do things that make me uncomfortable?
The great thing? Once you’re aware, you’re aware. The first thing I did is not to overthink or over-perfect this article. I wrote this in two hours across 2 days and then hit publish. The world didn’t end. I’m still alive, yay!
Here’s the TED talk that started this mindshift, enjoy!
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