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I have a pet name for my inner critic. I like to call her Perfectoria. Because when I’m outside of my comfort zone, my default stress response is to control, perfect and overachieve. So when I was invited to give this TED Talk, instead of sitting down to write an outline for a 12-minute speech, I settled in and started to write a manuscript. And then I stopped when my husband (who knows me all too well) ever so gently reminded me that the TED tagline is “IDEAS worth spreading” …not 7-hour audiobooks worth spreading.
If you had asked me 15 years ago why I overachieve, my Perfectoria response might have been, “Because I’m interested in so many different things and I want to change the world in every way that I know how!” Smile big. And that’s partially true. But the other side of the story that little miss Perfectoria would be mortified to admit is that I overachieved for most of my life from of place of fear, inadequacy and self-doubt.
You see I have Endometriosis, a painful, chronic disease that affects approximately 176 million women and girls globally. When I was 13 and I got my first period, my hormones were severely unbalanced, a contributor to Endometriosis, and so my skin broke out. It was all over my face, my arms, my chest, my back. “Friends” called me zit face. When I was 14 and 15, I was hospitalized twice for a “ruptured ovarian cyst”.
Somewhere along the way, I think I made an unconscious choice that if I couldn’t
control what was happening to my body, well then I was going to control everything else. So I took antibiotics to bury my blemishes, I slapped on a thick coat of
COVERGIRL, and I covered right over the authentic, vulnerable girl within me.
Then I controlled. And I perfected. And I achieved … to the point of exhaustion.
In 2001, I graduated summa cum laude from college with a 3.92 GPA, the first woman in my family to earn a four-year degree. I completed a double major in English and history, a minor in Writing, a concentration in Women’s Studies while working two part-time jobs on the side. My resume was perfect but I was a wreck. I had a panic attack in the bathroom during a final exam. I graduated with stress and anxiety induced health problems. I survived.
But this isn’t just about my story. The next generation of women leaders, they are ambitious with a capital A. Their resumes are impressive. And they’re also one of the most anxiety-ridden generations of women in history.
Everyday, I receive emails from rising women leaders from all around the world. Carrie, a college student, wrote me to say: “I am sitting here afraid to complete this huge project worth 50 percent of my grade because I’m afraid it won’t be ‘good enough.’ Why? I have a 3.95 GPA and now I’m terrified of ‘blowing it.’ AHAHAH. How can I give this up and not let it rule my life?”
The pursuit of perfection, it doesn’t stop once we graduate. A business owner in her fifties wrote me to say, “Today, I spend in my business WAY more time than I need to, to complete anything. Whether it’s preparing an email, a report, a paper or a book, I waste so much time making sure it’s perfect.’”
You may be thinking, “But I’m a high achiever and there’s nothing wrong with that.” And you’re right! But there is a fine line between being a high achiever and a perfectionist. A high achiever is driven by a love of learning and a sense of purpose. A perfectionist is driven by fear based Ambition with a capital A. I have to be perfect or else people are going to FIND OUT that I’m not worthy or good enough.
You see, there are mental health issues in my family… anxiety, depression, addiction. The perfectionist in me has hidden this. But the high achiever in me just stood here and said it out loud for the first time in my life to a room full of strangers. Why’d I do that? It’s because that part of me, the real me, says, “Wow! I totally rock.” My family and I have been through some dark, serious, soul-wrenching shit, and while we are not through to the other side yet, we’re getting there. And rather than being ashamed of that because it isn’t perfect, I’m just going to celebrate that because it’s real.
What I learned through counseling, coaching, soul-searching, praying and a ton of
personal leadership development, is that it’s invented here (within). Because when our self-worth is constructed anywhere else except within ourselves and our Higher Power, we begin living our lives according to someone else’s plan. We fall victim to confusion and self-doubt. And we can chase perfection to mask that doubt.
But here’s the raw truth: Just because I learned the secret doesn’t mean that I remember to apply it. When my husband or girlfriends aren’t there to remind me, here’s how I remind myself: 1) I say, “Maria, stop the insanity.” Case in point: I used to spend days perfecting 2,000+ word blog posts. I’d pick the perfect photos, and the perfect fonts and the perfect colors for the headlines and subheads. I’d post it. What happened? … Not much. Why? Because no one had time to read it. Women are busy! I post a two-sentence idea to Facebook that has rawness and vulnerability and something real to say. People notice it. People comment on it. Ladies, it gets shared. Now does that mean that we never produce anything substantive ever again? Of course not! It just means that everything we do doesn’t require a Herculean effort to get a great result.
2) I say, “Maria, get real.” When I first began my public speaking career, I watched a webinar where the trainer warned that speakers have a split second to make a first impression with an audience, and studies showed that if a speaker used filler copy (like, um, yeah, you know) just ONE TIME they lose credibility with an audience. Yeah… Well, I gotta tell you my inner perfectionist LOVED that webinar! So I perfected my speeches, and I got out there and acted like I was the all-knowing, all-powerful guru who perfectly ditched my inner perfectionist. And how did the audience respond? Well, here’s some of the actual comments I received in anonymous feedback forms: “Too perfect.” “Show off.” “Not one ‘um’ ‘like’ ‘yeah’ or ‘you know’ in a whole 60-minute speech. Recovering perfectionist my ass!” And the worst comment you can get when you’re addressing an audience is …
So I took those comments along with a good look in the mirror and decided to
get real. I started speaking again and something different happened during Q&A and discussion: Women began taking the microphone and getting real too. Women saying, quote, “I have never experienced such a cleansing of guilt or shame before in my life.” “It felt like you were inside my head telling my story too.” Striving for perfection is not only exhausting, I’ve learned that it’s also the easy way out. How would your leadership journey be different if you risked sharing more of your humanity and invited others to the conversation?
3) Finally, I say, “Maria, it’s time to embrace all the parts of you, even your inner perfectionist.” I used to think that my inner perfectionist was this evil Gremlin that I had to silence or fight. Then last year, I was formally trained as a life coach, and I learned another perspective. When I’m outside my comfort zone, I learned that my inner perfectionist could be trying to protect me from being ashamed or embarrassed like I was when I was a 13 year old little girl getting teased for having acne. My inner perfectionist is a part of me. She’s trying to serve me, even though it may be in a misguided way. So instead of wasting energy fighting her, I’ve begun to forgive her, thank her, and then ask her to help me grow.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I say that a woman divided against herself cannot stand either. Imagine how freeing it would be to stop beating yourself up, and instead come home to all the parts of you.
Imagine how it would feel to teach that powerful lesson to your daughter, your niece, your granddaughter or another woman that you love. So start accepting that inner voice who is not only there to guide you but to protect you and lead you to a better place!
I’m a work in progress. So are you. So let’s lead by example to ignite a movement. The young women in our lives need a movement like that. You need a movement like that. I…I need a movement like that. My inner critic, Perfectoria and I, invite you to join me. Thank you.
Founder & President
Campus Calm®, certified professional life coach, national speaker and author of Campus Calm University: The College Student’s 10-Step Blueprint to Stop Stressing and Create a Happy, Purposeful Life.