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Escaping the “Perfect” Trap: How to Find Freedom and Fulfillment

Our desire and need for perfection is a belief, not the truth. 

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Image Credit: Midjourney

The perfect trap.

“If I’m perfect, no one can ever criticize me.” 

Which isn’t true; we’ll still hear things we don’t want to hear. 

And when we hear things we don’t want to hear, it’s because we didn’t do something good enough.

We have to try harder.

Deeper and deeper into the perfectionism prison we go. 

We grow terrified of being seen and heard and hide behind the facade we believe will protect us. We don’t dare be seen as anything “less than.” 

We become terrified of putting anything out into the world, projects left undone or in a perpetual state of being worked on because they’re not quite “there.”

We live a life that’s not our own; it belongs to the beliefs of what it should be, and we watch helplessly as our world and our place in it diminishes. 

We hide in the open. 

But we double down our efforts because it’s got to work; striving for perfection is a good thing, right?

No one can fault us for not finishing projects because we’re aiming for a “worthwhile” goal. 

We live half an existence, pretending it’s whole and suffering in the disparity.

I’m using “we,” but really, this was my experience with perfectionism, something I still struggle with, and I know I’m not alone. 

“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” — Brené Brown

I was imprisoned by perfectionism since about the age of 6 or 7. 

If I didn’t score 100 on every test, I wasn’t good enough or worthy. So began my journey into the prison of perfectionism. 

I was lucky; going to federal prison and essentially losing everything destroyed the illusion of perfectionism and taught me about freedom. 

The facade I’d worked so hard to fabricate was decimated, and I needed to start from scratch.

I didn’t want to recreate what I’d destroyed, even if the comfort of the known called to me. 

I longed to be free, not only from the physical boundaries of prison but from my mental prisons, perfectionism being one of them.

An offshoot of unworthiness, believing I wasn’t enough, and my fear of being seen and heard for who I am. 

Honestly, I don’t know how I would have broken free from perfectionism without going to prison. 

I don’t know if I would have had the awareness and courage to leave the comfort of the cell.

I know this, though: we don’t need to destroy our lives to break free, nor do I suggest it.

Looking back at the decade of rebuilding and reinventing my life, there were tumblers to open the combination lock on my self-imposed prison cell.

I share them here, hoping they help someone walk out of their perfectionism prison cell. 

Mission:

I had an overwhelming desire to give meaning to the suffering my choices created, and one of the ways I knew to do that was to share my story. 

My goal in sharing my story was to help one person. That’s all I wanted, and it’s been my fuel for the past decade. 

A person in pain doesn’t care if a sentence is crafted perfectly; they just don’t want to be in pain anymore. 

Perfection doesn’t help them; honesty, rawness, and vulnerability do. 

And the path to these is paved with sharing mistakes and terrible choices, the antithesis of perfection. 

Serving a mission higher than myself meant embracing mistakes. 

It also transformed into a desire to make more mistakes; if I wasn’t making mistakes, I wasn’t going far enough.

Ending Self-Flagellation/Punishment:

I’d consistently deny myself small acts of joy (for example – watching TV in prison).

Both because I believed I wasn’t worthy of them and because I’d fallen short of my personal expectations of perfection – often unattainable expectations. 

Which creates a wicked cycle. 

The moment I gave myself permission to enjoy small acts like watching TV in prison, I demonstrated great compassion for myself, compassion that was granted in lieu of perfectionism. 

It was granted merely for me being me; I didn’t need to be perfect to feel good. 

Expansion over Contraction:

We can’t fully understand something until we experience its opposite. 

Prison allowed me to understand freedom.

I used to believe that perfectionism would grant me freedom – no one can touch me if I’m perfect. 

I’d be free from all negative judgment.

All the choices I made to create what I believed was the freedom I sought were fear-based. 

Fear is a double-edged sword. 

When I avoid the sharp edge, I shrink my world. 

When I move toward the sharp edge, I expand my world. 

I still avoid the edge, capitulate, and make fear-based choices because I’m human.

But if I degrade myself for doing so, I’m still a prisoner of perfectionism.

I choose expansion. 

Perfectionism is an insidious belief that will slowly shrink and decimate our lives. The first key to unlocking the cell door is hidden in plain sight.

Our desire and need for perfection is a belief, not the truth. 

When we drop the belief and operate from our truth, we change the course of our lives. 

Craig Stanland is a Reinvention Architect & Mindset Coach, TEDx & Keynote Speaker, and the Best-Selling Author of "Blank Canvas, How I Reinvented My Life After Prison." He specializes in working with high-achievers who've chased success, money, and status in their 1st half, only to find a success-sized hole in their lives. He helps them tap into their full potential, break free from autopilot, draft a new life blueprint, and connect with their Life's Mission so they can create their extraordinary 2nd half with purpose, meaning and fulfillment. Connect with him here

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