Perfectionism Vs. Healthy Striving
This is another concept I found valuable in Brené Brown’s book, “Dare to Lead.” I like it because it gives us yet another criteria for making healthy choices in life, and highlights the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving by looking at the difference between improvement and approval. Of course, when framed this way, almost everyone would choose improvement. However, for those of us who were raised to believe that it is our accomplishments that make us worthy and valuable, this is not such an easy choice.
In other words, if growing up we received praise and approval for getting good grades, doing what was expected, getting into the right school, (basically, pleasing others), then our brains were wired to see this as the key to love, safety, and happiness. In psychology, this is called an “external locus of approval,” and has the tendency to set us up for a life of perfectionism. Of course, since “perfect” is rarely, if ever, achievable, and since the decision of whether we were successful was almost always in the eyes of others, this also set many of us up for a life of anxiety, worry, and fear of never being seen as “enough.”
This is why perfectionism is highly correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.
For those who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy, you know that all of this negativity is driven by the middle brain, or limbic system. This part of the brain receives information first, and then routes it either down to the brainstem or up to the neocortex depending on whether it believes the information to be dangerous.
This makes sense because it has been this middle brain that has indeed kept us safe, and even alive in the evolution of our specie by using worry, anxiety, and fear to motivate behavior necessary to our survival. Unfortunately, it has not evolved as fast as society, and, therefore, tends to misinterpret almost all negative information (such as not getting the approval of of others) as dangerous, and throws us into the part of the brain that is designed to deal with danger (the lower brain, or brainstem).
Heathy striving on the other hand, does not require the approval of others, but instead is more of an internal drive to improve upon some aspect of who we are. This is called an “internal locus of approval or control,” and is highly correlated with success and self-confidence. This is because our desire for improvement is being driven by the upper 80% of the brain (the neocortex, what I call the “Top of the Mind,” and therefore gives us access to the qualities, characteristics, problem-solving skills, and interpersonal skills that are so necessary for success in today’s world.
This internal, “Top of the Mind” focus also allows us to deal with mistakes or setbacks more successfully because we don’t see them as an indication of our not being enough, but of a choice we made that didn’t produce the results we were wanting. We then choose again based upon what we have learned, which means we go into the future wiser and more confident of who we are.
Therefore, if ____________________ is your goal, but you find yourself worrying too much about the approval/opinion of others, I suggest that you reject the fear-based perspective, and instead focus on the internal qualities and characteristics that make us worthy and valuable. In fact, as a psychologist, I often encourage people to make a list of 20 qualities and/or characteristics of them at their best, and then read this list at least 3 times a day for at least 21 days. This process begins to rewire the middle brain to see our potential safety, success, and self-worth as a function of who we are, not just what we do. If practiced enough, this can result in a more confident future where healthy striving is our experience of life.
For those looking for a road map to this rewiring process, I have written a book and created presentations that teach readers and participants how to bring this more purposeful perspective to life. It is called, “Life from the Top of the Mind,” and I have the pleasure of going around the world teaching this to individuals and organizations looking for a science-based process of improvement and success. Therefore, if you are wanting to shift from the need for approval to the desire to improve, I suggest that you contact me, because, until we rewire the brain to support us in this more purposeful perspective, we will be forever driven to be perfect, and forever feeling like failures when we fall short of this unreachable goal.
~ All the best, Dr. Bill