How To Find Bravery in a Culture of Perfectionism

A book review for Reshma Saujani’s Brave Not Perfect

What have you perfected? Whether it’s cartwheels, your backhand or public speaking, there’s a good chance you put in serious time to get great. Pre-kids, decent sleep, plus will and attention, can lead to mastery. But after kids, when our rest and thoughts are constantly interrupted, new pursuits can feel impossible. We’re not alone in feeling this way. Perfectionism is a slippery, unattainable bar, we’re taught to seek. Motherhood puts more at risk and we loose that desire to stumble. Possibly even fail. We double-down on trying to get everything ‘right’ at home and work.

Reshma Saujani, Author and CEO of Girls Who Code, gave an amazing talk at the Massachusetts Women’s Conference which lead me to devour her book, Brave Not Perfect. She eloquently states the problem, “We go from trying to be perfect students and daughters, to perfect professionals, perfect girlfriends, perfect wives and perfect mommies. …Hitting all the marks we’re supposed to and wondering why we’re overwhelmed, frustrated and unhappy.” Exactly!

Perfectionism. A Myth With Penalties

Reshma shares in the book, “after years of perfect-girl training, we grow up and discover the rules have changed. … Playing nice doesn’t get us the promotions or positions of power.” We feel trapped by leadership and wage gaps but we’re too drained to resist a broken system. Increased responsibility at home coincides with more complexity at work. We try to do what our Mothers and Grandmothers did for us, even though today’s demands are different. In the book Reshma states, “We’ve done a great job of internalizing that anything less than a perfect mom equals a bad mom.” Sigh. So, amidst the onslaught of emails and dishes, we retreat. What choices do we have?

Self-Care Begins the Self-Repair

Reshma states in the book, “…It demands stamina and endurance to leave our comfort zone. Which is why the first and essential key to cultivating a bravery mindset is putting your wellness first.” We know this but still struggle with self-care. In most families, Moms own all-things-childcare-and-household, which doesn’t leave any discretionary time. Life changing mind-body practices, tend to work best as ongoing habits. But all the willpower in the world doesn’t help when your sitter is sick or school closes. With kids, even the most organized plans change. Often.

Do Self-Care When It Works for YOU (Not Your Family) 

“…The bravest thing I did this year was go to the gym at 7 am. The best time for me but worst time for the family. Pick wellness at a time that’s convenient for you,” Reshma said during her talk. Bravo! So many of us squeeze self-care into the margins of our days. Reshma spoke beautifully about our learned-martyrdom, another unfortunate outcome from all of that people-pleasing. Of course, being brave also requires emotional strength. How do we cultivate that mental resilience?

Nurture a Healthy Mind

Reshma said, “We’re obsessed with what we eat and drink, but don’t think enough about healthy practices for the mind.” YES! At the end of her talk I asked her, how to manage the ‘fight’ many of us have at home to change expectations from our partners or kids. She described her own shift to take more time to herself, “I felt guilty. It wasn’t my son or my husband, it was me. Why do I feel like I have to be a martyr? (I thought) the perfect preschool Mom doesn’t have pancakes by herself in the city. So, I’ve tried to switch it up this past year. I’ve eaten at a lot of pancake houses by myself and it’s been fine.” Love it! She added, “You don’t fight for yourself when you’re exhausted. Another cost of perfection.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Reshma is direct in her book about the double-bind for women, “We’re damned If we’re confident and gutsy and doomed if we don’t.” She acknowledges most employers still reward compliance, “The receptivity to bravery in the workplace for women just isn’t there.” But vulnerability and bravery, like other new habits, can be learned. She gives excellent examples in the book and it opens with the incredible story of her failed Congressional campaign. Despite the very public loss, leaving a career she grew to hate and becoming brave enough to run for political office, changed her life. “Your failures give you your edge. Make you wiser, stronger, more empathetic, more valuable and more real. They become your personal badges of honor,” Reshma said.

Make Space for Your Happiness

In the book Reshma shared results from a study about the paradox of declining female happiness, “Although women’s lives have improved in terms of increased opportunities and higher wages … happiness has declined. We should be happier but we’re not. When we’re chasing perfection, we can end up in jobs and situations we don’t necessarily want to be in.” Wise. In the book she details how “bravery is context specific” and quite personal. It’s pushing ourselves past whatever self-limiting beliefs remain. It’s taking that next scary, brave step. She encouraged us, at the end of her talk, not to fear failure but a life not lived fully. She said, “I’m in my 40s and I have friends who are bitter about that dream they didn’t chase. I’m afraid of regret and envy.” Amen!

I loved the book, Brave Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More and Live Bolder. It’s filled with relatable stories from her life and women she’s interviewed. It’s a powerful rallying cry not to bury ourselves in ‘shoulds’ each day, set boundaries and move bravely towards the life we want.

Reshma Saujani is the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does. With their 7-week Summer Immersion Program, 2-week specialized Campus Program, after school Clubs, and a 13-book New York Times best-selling series, Girls Who Code is leading the movement to inspire, educate, and equip young women with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.

 

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