Sometimes, it' never quite enough. If you're flawless, then you win my love. Don't forget to win first place. Don't forget to keep that smile on your face. -Perfect, Alanis Morissette
At one point in the 90's, you couldn't drive two miles in the car without hearing Alanis Morrissette on the radio (if you listened to the stations that played her songs, that is). Perfect is from her hit album Jagged Little Pill, which is known for her songs: Ironic, Hand in My Pocket, and You Oughtta Know, among others.
"We'll love you just the way you are if you're perfect." Unlike previous LIFE LESSONS FROM 90'S MUSIC posts, the life lesson from Perfect is her song as a commentary on life, not as direct advice on how to approach our lives. We know when we hear these lyrics that she speaks to the pain that perfectionism causes; she is not supporting us in the never-ending quest for perfection. The lyrics as a whole speak to parents who put pressure on their children and try to live through them, compensating for their own inadequacies. This post is not using the song in that way, but rather how we internalized messages to be perfect as children, and how they show up for us in our adult lives.
The song speaks to the hustle for worthiness: we'll finally be accepted, loved, and be the recipient of beaming pride once we obtain perfection. Therefore acceptance, worthiness, and even love are conditional upon our actions. We're not worthy now as is, we're worthy if, or worthy when.
The hustle for worthiness most likely started when we were really young and got subtle messages and feedback about our behaviors, performances, grades, etc. The messages could have been overt or covert and weren't necessarily from parents (although could have been) but from the teachers, coaches, or other influential adults in our lives. We took their feedback to be 100% true of us, and therefore if we didn't get approval or positive feedback, then it wasn't good enough. We never stop to question the feedback, to put it in its place as one person's suggestion or opinion. We can blame ourselves easily if we don't get the recognition we want because it just means we weren't trying hard enough. This is the oil that fuels the perfectionism engine.
I used to joke in job interviews that I was a recovering perfectionist and that perfectionism was my "weakness" when it came to the requisite strengths and weaknesses part of the interview. I would spin it into a strength, and the interviewer seemed to eat it up. Who wouldn't want an employee who always wants to make her work perfect? Well... It's really not a strength. It drives your worthiness into the ground and it feels like quicksand from which you'll never escape. I now don't joke about being a recovering perfectionist; I own it as part of my story.
How is perfectionism bad? Don't people like when we work hard, do things for others, and continuously improve? Yes, but not at the expense of yourself, and not to just earn accolades. People may confuse healthy striving with perfectionism, but heath striving is more of the "good kind" of hard work. Brené Brown differentiates perfectionism from healthy striving:
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 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, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Healthy striving is internally motivated, directing us toward our own goals and values while perfectionism is all about “What will people think?” It’s an external audit about managing perception. It can also be thought of as a process addiction because when we try to do something perfectly and still get criticized, it reinforces the idea that we must be even more perfect next time.
How is this showing up in your relationships now? What happens if you get constructive criticism on your performance review at work? Do you get flashbacks of a paper handed back in middle school with red markings on it? The shame from a bad report card? Do you feel less than effective when disciplining your children, and instead of tag-teaming with your spouse when he criticizes your approach, you say things like, "well if you're the expert, then you handle it." Snark is a great cover for shame.
We think these incidents don't mean anything, but they highlight the thin, worn out band-aids that barely protect our open wounds.
Listen to the song here.