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  • Writer's pictureAmy Holder

The Best Advice I Ever Received

For as long as I can remember, I have been a perfectionist at heart. To borrow a term coined by Brené Brown, these days, I consider myself a 'recovering perfectionist.' My particular brand of perfectionism was self-imposed and born out of a chaotic - but safe - household. I am the third of four children and I often felt lost in the shuffle of a busy home. Depending on how much you believe in birth order, I identify with many of the characteristics of a middle child:

  • Peace keeper

  • People pleaser

  • Feeling overshadowed or left out

  • Independent

  • Social - though this has changed in adulthood

I'm grateful to have very loving and supportive parents and all my safety and emotional needs were met when I was young. But that didn't stop me from adopting a perfectionist mindset. I had a sibling with mental health and emotional issues, and they needed a lot of additional support. In order to make things easier on my parents, I behaved well, I excelled academically and I tried to keep the peace and be the family comedian in an effort to bring levity to conflict.


I never really saw my perfectionism as a problem, because it often served it's purpose in performing well in school. What I failed to connect was how my experience with depression and anxiety was directly linked to my perfectionist mindset. I wanted to be the perfect daughter, sibling, friend, student, etc. No one asked me to do this, but I was compelled to make everyone else's lives easier by trying to be perfect. And when I made a mistake or felt I failed to live up to the unrealistic standards I set for myself, I would spiral in to anxiety and depression.


In 2014 I was working at a mental health clinic and started a new position and had a new manager. It was a very fast-paced environment and I wanted to be perfect at my new job - again to make everyone else's jobs easier. I had regular supervision with my manager and always braced myself for feedback. As you can imagine, the perfectionist in me had a really hard time receiving feedback. I think my manager could sense this and took a very specific approach with me.


She would start by pointing out what I was doing well and then gently bring up the errors in my work and ask me why I thought this was happening. She always reassured me that she believed in my skills and ability to perform my job duties. Then she would share her feedback on what wasn't going well and invited me to consider what I thought was contributing to the errors in my work. I was encouraged to learn from my mistakes, rather than feel shameful about them. I appreciated this gentle approach and it made receiving the feedback so much easier. But it was one particular piece of advice that has stuck with me all these years later:

  • Language can be powerful and can help us perceive things differently. Rather than call them mistakes, call them learning opportunities. This communicates that you have not learned something YET - and that you have the capacity to learn and grow.

Something I value about myself is my innate curiosity and desire to learn for the sake of learning. So, using language that is rooted in these values has been incredibly impactful for me. This was my first step toward adopting a growth mindset. I look at every mistake as an opportunity to seek out more knowledge, learn a new skill or make space for wisdom that was not there before.

Carol Dweck, Ph. D. has studied human motivation for decades and developed a theory about two mindsets that can shape our lives: fixed versus growth. She writes:

"For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.

[...]

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics."

Conversely, people with growth mindsets believe that skill and intelligence are something that people can develop. They believe that while people have inherent qualities and traits, success comes from constant personal development.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment[.]”


Dweck found that the growth mindset encourages a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational attributes, like love and friendship, can be developed through effort and intentional practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.


Embracing a growth mindset encouraged me to take more steps toward recovering from perfectionism. I started to invest in my personal growth and development because I believed in my potential to evolve and become more of myself - flaws and all. I had to stop telling the story that I needed to be perfect in order to take care of others. This was especially important as I trained to be a therapist. My desire to be the 'perfect therapist' would have interfered with the therapeutic process. As a recovering perfectionist, I invite feedback from my clients in order to learn from them about what is and isn't working in therapy. Similar to my supervision meetings with my manager, this collaboration encourages my clients to tap in to their capacity to learn and grow.


I encounter many of young professionals as a therapist and often reference Carol Dweck's work with this population. I can see how their identity has a perfectionist is holding them back from leading more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Letting go of perfectionism and adopting a growth mindset doesn't mean we stifle our success - it actually allows us to redefine success in a more realistic way that is achievable. We move away from being fixed and never feeling good enough, and move forward toward aligning ourselves with our values and investing in our potential to learn and grow.


If you're interested in learning more about Carol Dweck's work, I would recommend picking up her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck goes on to explore how these fundamental mindsets form, what their defining characteristics are in different contexts of life, and how we can rewire our cognitive habits to adopt the much more fruitful and nourishing growth mindset.


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