I’m about to present at a conference. I’ve done my legwork. I’ve gotten my high impact slides sent in, I’ve gone over my visuals and my points and everything is on track to be….
Nope. Stop. I’m not gonna to say it. I’m not coming close to That Word. Speaking it could jinx it all. Like Godzilla’s foot squashing Bambi.
I’m in a war with the word “Perfect”. Maybe you are too. “Perfect” is my Inner Critic all gussied up with lipstick and high heels and Spanx. But I’m not fooled. I’ve seen that smirk. There’s nothing my Inner Critic won’t do to mess me up, shut me up and keep me playing small.
Standards of Perfection, Courtesy of Your Inner Critic
If “Perfect” were a person, (mine is a female person, so I’m using those pronouns, but feel free to substitute your own) she’d be described as having some specific traits – these are inspired by Tara Mohr’s awesome book “Playing Big” in describing out internal critic. The Inner Critic is:
- Harsh – quick to pounce on any vulnerability
- Binary – you’re either fabulous or a total loser. And somehow, you’re never fabulous.
- The Voice of Reason – she’s just trying to help by lending you her superior knowledge. (Sound like that “frenemy” you had in middle school?)
- Attuned to your weaknesses “You know you’re not good at__” (Fill in the blank – whatever quality appears absolutely critical to your next opportunity)
- The Holder of High Standards: She’s just trying to prod you to be your Absolute Best, right? Except you never ever arrive at Best in her mind – or in yours.
- A Talented Mimic: She sounds just like your mother, your sister, your Ex, your Aunt Eunice…..
- The Voice of Hesitation – “You’re not ready yet!” “You need a degree! A pile of money, a liposuction!” (And while we’re on THAT subject…)
- The Voice of body-perfectionism – yeah. We all know that one. We’re too fat, too thin, too old, too tall, too short, too…weird. Whatever we are, we are NOT acceptable. Because we’re Not Perfect.
- The one-two punch: (Her Favorite!) If I procrastinate on tackling That Big Thing, she gets to kick me for being lazy. And when I finally take it on, she knocks it all to the ground for not being Perfect!
The High Cost of Impossible Standards
I know that when I somehow let Perfect slip in and run the show, my authenticity leaks away. No matter where I am, or what I’m doing, I’m constantly looking for a map that only she can provide, and only she can read. I’m always in danger of making a wrong turn. Insight alludes me. Having fun is impossible – even while doing something truly fun. Perfect is exhausting in ways no real human ever could be.
Embracing the Ordinary
The School of Life, one of my favorite sources of short animation videos, takes on the mandate of perfection in “Why You Don’t Need to Be Exceptional”. This may be the best 7 minutes we over and underachievers can gift to ourselves. The narrator notes that 20% of the population can be considered the “Superstrivers”. Those who are compelled to Achieve, to Win Big, to Be Remarkable, who cannot bear the idea of “settling” for the small imperfect pleasures of an ordinary life. And who suffer enormous consequences, regardless of how much they achieve.
A Fundamental Premise for Improvisation!
Patricia Ryan Madson, Stanford Theatre professor and author of “Improv Wisdom”encourages us to steer away from trying to be perfect; to simply make peace with, and even trust, our ordinary selves. To do this, she suggests….wait for it… lowering our expectations. Gasp! What?! Did that just send a shock to your system? I know it did to mine. But who is setting these expectations? That’s right. Spanxypants herself…the Perfect Critic!
Trouble is, Perfect is pretty much everywhere, isn’t she? In my training work with medical residents in the Simulated Patient Program, they’ll mindlessly use it to simply transition from one part of the appointment to the next. Interview completed? “Perfect!” Breast exam done? “Perfect!” Especially in a gynecological setting – this word becomes evaluative and highly insulting. And we know that filler words are like “uhm’s” and “uhhhh’s” are simply trying to buy time and gather thoughts before launching into the next stage. But really, it’s time to find another filler. And no, “Great!” is not any better.
Once I started tracking Perfect’s impact on the world around me, I realized she’s everywhere. Can you imagine the Perfect Critic at the helm of your corporation? Millions of people suffer under her outsized demands in businesses across the country. Perfect demands that we prioritize everything and get it done now. That we perfect our product, processes, productivity and, by extension of course, ourselves as employees. And what’s the definition of a completely perfect employee? That’s right. A robot. And you thought the coming AI revolution was just about efficiency.
Putting Perfect in her place….
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I have to put my own internal dominatrix in her place. After all, she is trying to be useful. So I’ll give her a task she loves – making lists! I’ll get her a spiffy new notebook or maybe a new list app for her to play with. So she can stay busy… perfectly productive… and off my case. Until, of course, next time….
For more on this topic – check out this TED talk by Charly Haversat on the “Nirvana Fallacy”.
Here’s an intriguing, interactive improvisation tool to get your group tapping into the imperfect power of the Ordinary: Shift/POV