In a marriage, every once in a while there is a conflict that results in a lot of soul-searching. My husband and I had one of those recently, and it resulted in a huge shift in our relationship, a really good one.
The crux of the issue we were having was that my husband felt he couldn’t be completely honest with me about certain things because he feels the need to shield me emotionally. It led to a lot of soul-searching on my part, and me reading Brene Brown’s amazing book “Daring Greatly” and I’m sharing my takeaways because I know someone out there struggles with this issue just as much as I do: perfectionism.
Huh? What does perfectionism have to do with honest communication in a relationship?
Let me break it down to you.
I grew up being praised for getting good grades, following my parents’ rules, and being a good Christian girl. My parents had a literal folder where they kept all my Honor Roll certificates and awards, and when visitors would come over they would pull it out for the guests to ooh and ahh over, and give me approving nods and smiles.
After a while, I equated that praise and approval with being loved. I thought, “My parents love me when I’m good, so I’ll be good ALL the time!” My self-worth became dependent on the approval and praise of my family and friends. I thought if I did things exactly the way I was told do them, my life would be easy and I would avoid hardship.
I even took that approach in my relationship with God. I thought if I was a super obedient Christian, I would avoid life’s pains, and numb myself to the feelings of shame that I constantly struggled with.
Let me pause here to explain that in Carribean culture, and Haitian culture in particular, the approval of your parents is emphasized A LOT. Religious Haitian parents often dangle the curse in the Fourth Commandment as a way to stop their kids from doing “sinful” things. Obey your parents and prosper, or dishonor your parents and live a cursed existence, doomed to fail at any endeavor you undertake that your parents don’t approve of. Because of this, in a way, your parents are God for a teenager raised by Haitian parents. I wrote an extensive post about that here.
So when I got married, had kids, and started dealing with life’s very real problems, I found myself constantly failing at being perfect. I was also super-sensitive to any kind of critique from my husband. Something as simple as, “Babe, can you start being a bit more organized with the way you keep stuff in the cabinets?” sounded to me like, “You’re not enough.” I became obsessed with having his approval in every decision, which started to put a strain on our relationship after a while. “I don’t want to be your dad,” my husband would often say, or “Who cares what I think? What do YOU think, babe?”
Now let’s be clear. Perfectionism isn’t wanting to do your best. When you truly strive for excellence it’s because you want to put your best foot forward for YOU. But a perfectionist’s main goal (even more so for someone who was raised as the obedient child) is to be perceived by OTHER people as perfect. And that’s exactly how I was living. If my husband wasn’t 100 percent pleased with something I did, it meant I was failing as a wife (in my mind). I had traded the approval of my parents for my husband’s approval.
It also meant that he couldn’t be completely honest with me in everything because he had to worry about my reaction to every little thing he said or did. It meant he started feeling like managing my emotions was his responsibility. I had become too emotionally dependent on my husband.
That’s dangerous territory for any relationship. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few months of us being in therapy, it’s that complete honesty is a must for the health of any relationship. If you feel like you have to hold back, there’s a deeper root that needs to be examined and dealt with. Any gaps in communication have the potential to become holes in your relationship that slowly erode the love and friendship.
For us, it was my wall of perfectionism. For the past few years, I found that I can’t hide behind that wall anymore. I had to start being honest with myself and realize that I care way too much about what people think of me. I’m slowly realizing that even if no one approves of something I’m doing, and even if I make mistakes sometimes, I am still enough. For a person of my upbringing, that’s a huge paradigm shift. Doing things that my parents don’t approve of (yes, Haitian parents will exert emotional control over their kids even when they become adults) is still a bit nerve-wracking for me.
In our case, Jono revealed to me that for a while now he’s felt that he can’t be 100 percent himself when it comes to our relationship because he’s constantly worried about hurting my feelings. And his worry over my reaction has caused him to hold back from pursuing certain goals. That really hit me in the gut, because one of the things I love about my husband is his approach to life. He’s not afraid to put himself out there and fail. I’m the one who likes things to be safe and certain, both financially and emotionally.
That conversation was kind of my wake up call, which led to me stumbling upon a passage about perfectionism in “Daring Greatly,” and how it can keep you from living a fulfilling life. I shared what I learned with my husband and he was like, “Wooooow, okay now I get why you react that way.”
If you are reading this and the light has gone off in your head, and you’ve come to the realization that you, like me, are a perfectionist, I strongly urge you to read Brene Brown’s incredible book, “Daring Greatly.” It’s part of my healing journey and I gotta say, it’s literally rewiring my brain!
In the meantime, here are some tangible steps you can take
Remember that you are already enough
If you attach your self-worth to other people or your circumstances, you will never have a healthy view of your life. You’ll always feel like you’re trying to keep up, and you will never arrive. Love yourself with your imperfections. Your flaws and struggles make you human. And failure means growth; it doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough, or not worthy (preaching to myself here!)
2. Practice gratitude
If you’re anything like me, worry is your constant companion. Am I being a good parent? Will we be able to pay off this car any time soon? Do we have enough savings? That mindset will always make you feel like you don’t have enough, or that you need more, which leads to more worry and scrambling to make things perfect. Learn to lean into the simple moments of each day. My husband literally told me when unexpected stuff would come up in the budget sometimes he’d scramble to fix it before I found out so that I wouldn’t get upset or start to worry. Your vibe rubs off on your partner so you want to be sure that you are rubbing off in a positive way! But even more importantly, gratitude keeps you in a joyful state of mind so that even when things go wrong, you’re not attaching it to something wrong with YOU. You just accept it as part of life as a human being.
3. Practice self-compassion
You know that negative voice you hear in your head when you do something foolish? Turn off that voice. And start telling yourself the same kind of stuff you would tell your best friend if they felt foolish. “It’s going to be okay.” “You’ll get it done next time.” “You’re an amazing person, what are you talking about?” Keep that same energy when it comes to yourself. You are the only you that you have. So love you! And don’t attach your joy to life’s circumstances or people’s opinions.
4. Practice making your own decisions.
It can be as minor as wearing an outfit you’ve never worn before, or as major as starting that business you’ve been dreaming about. Step out and do something only YOU want to do. It feels scary. It feels vulnerable. Embrace that feeling. It’s how you feel when you let yourself live wholeheartedly instead of stifling parts of yourself to please others. The more you practicing thinking and acting independently, the more you’ll learn to trust yourself.
We all struggle with perfectionism at one point or another, particularly when we’re in a situation that requires us to become vulnerable. But living with a constant need for the approval of others in order to avoid shame and pain is only setting you up for a lifetime of continual disappointment. Putting up that wall will only isolate you from your partner and cause holes in your communication. You should be able to be completely open with one another without feeling like you’re walking on eggshells. Open, honest communication at all times is what makes relationships intimate and strengthens unity!
Check out my guide on throwing off your shackles and living a life FREE of insecurity here! And if you want my FREE GUIDE on the challenges of being newlywed, go here.
Till next time!