A Teacher’s Shield of Perfectionism

I’ve never really thought of myself as a perfectionist, probably because I thought of perfectionism as synonymous with obsessive-compulsive patterns of behaviour.  I’m not the person who readjusts the picture in the room every time I walk into until “it fits.” I’m not the person who rearranges the books on my bookshelf until it “feels right,” therefore, I’m not a perfectionist.   That is the way I thought about it until this summer when two discoveries came together in an interesting way that changed my mind.

The first discovery was the realization that I didn’t know myself very well.  During the last few months, I’ve been reading Brad Lomenick’s book, H3 Leadership, where he underlines the importance of leaders knowing themselves.  Lomenick explains how knowing yourself helps you make important decisions, find areas you are passionate about and realize when you need support.  As I reflected on my own life, I realized that low levels of self-knowledge were holding me back from being an effective leader but I wasn’t sure why.  Was I not seeking feedback from those around me? Was I not taking enough time to reflect on my own passions, skill set, or areas of weakness? I wasn’t sure.

A few weeks later, I found myself listening to Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  In chapter four, she describes perfectionism as a shame-avoidance technique that blinds people to who they really are.  I instantly understood one of the primary reasons I didn’t know myself–I was attempting to escape feelings of shame through perfectionism.  

What is perfectionism?

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is a negative mindset that keeps us from knowing who we really are.  In her book, she describes it as “a defensive move” focused on hustling for the approval of others.

Roman Shield

Perfectionism is a defensive move.  It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is 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 being seen.

How does it affect learning?

When I embrace perfectionism as a teacher it means that I take fewer risks in my learning.  I don’t create as much as I should because I’m too worried that my work won’t measure up to my colleagues or students in some way.  Sometimes it means, I don’t try new strategies or lesson ideas in my classroom because I don’t want the students to see one of my lessons flop.  Ironically, this would be the best way to model a growth mindset to them.  At other times, it means that I don’t ask other teachers for help because I want to be perceived as being omnicompetent. Putting up a perfectionist front, may also mean that I over-schedule myself and have no margin for relationships with others because I don’t want to disappoint people by saying no.   It could also mean that I want to appear to be an ultra multi-tasker that does hundreds of tasks per day “naturally” without much effort–while I’m really burning out.

What cures perfectionism?

Though I don’t expect any quick fixes to my own perfectionist tendencies, Brown does suggest a few helpful guidelines her book to counter the self-destructive and addictive nature of perfectionism.

  • Create. The creative process requires some level of vulnerability.  It requires that we open up the “cracks” in our armour and be who we really are.  Those cracks are the things that others can identify with and respond to.
  • Own your story.  Brown says that we really only have two choices when it comes to own story.  We can either own our stories (even the messy ones) or we stand outside them.  Standing outside them causes us to deny our vulnerabilities and imperfections and orphan the parts of us that don’t fit in with who /what we think we’re supposed to be.  It also causes us to hustle for other people’s approval of our worthiness.
  • Embrace our common humanity.  Recognizing that feelings of personal inadequacy, suffering, and failure are part of our shared common experiences helps us normalize these parts of our lives and embrace them.
  • Bust perfectionist myths.  Believing myths like, “The perfect life is really possible” and responding to failure with “It would have been perfect if I would have applied more time and energy” only makes perfectionism worse. Brown reminds us that perfection is more about perception than internal motivation, and perceptions cannot be controlled–no matter how much time, effort and money we apply.

A final cure to perfectionism connects to the theme of worthiness in Brown’s book.  She says that wholehearted people, that have the courage to be vulnerable are characterized by a deep sense of worthiness.

Gospel Worthiness

As a Christian, I think that the gospel has the power to help me own my story and give me the sense of worthiness that she describes.  The story of the gospel, written in the Bible, is that God has provided a covering for shame through the perfect life of Jesus.  In Revelations 3:16, the “white garments” that cover the shame of the perfectionists Jesus is speaking to, is “bought” from Jesus. The white garments Jesus refers to is a symbol of his perfect life that is imputed to believers through faith.  These garments are not earned by our perfect moral life.  They are morally perfect but they are supplied as a gift by an outside party.  However, those white clothes do give me the confidence of forgiveness and worthiness before God–even in the mist of failure and embarrassment.     

Questions for Reflection

Is perfectionism preventing you from knowing yourself?

Is perfectionism locking you in a fixed mindset that prevents your growth as an educator?

I would love to know if you can identify with my experience or see this at work in your own practice.  Please leave me a comment below.