By Carrie Jones, LCSW
One of the most common traits I see among clients I counsel here in Shanghai is perfectionism. Expats here tend to be extremely high-achievers. Some have excelled in their work and been sent here on high level job assignments (or have come supporting those on high level assignments which can be equally demanding) while others have come pursuing their own ambitious dreams and goals. Regardless, it is common for expats here to experience exceedingly high expectations to be successful and accomplished. Sometimes these expectations are from external sources such as work/boss, parents, teachers, or peers, but perhaps more often they are primarily internally driven.
While having such high standards certainly has some positive aspects, it also sometimes comes at a great cost. Many individuals express feeling continuously anxious, stressed, or even burnt out. Feeling isolated and disconnected also is common for people who feel they are always competing with or at least comparing themselves to those around them rather than truly relating. Furthermore, rather than experiencing significant joy or pride when they achieve any particular goal, they find that any feeling of accomplishment is fleeting before they raise the bar and the pressure is on to reach the next even higher goal. And if they do not meet a particular goal, the result is often deep shame or even feelings of lack of value or worth.
Is there an alternative to this relentless striving for unattainable perfection? Researcher Brené Brown proposes that there is and advocates for what she calls wholehearted living. I regularly incorporate this concept into my counseling sessions as I have recognized how tremendously powerful it is. So what exactly is whole-hearted living? In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown says, “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to prove our worthiness both to ourselves and to others by constantly performing, perfecting, and pleasing. As Brown points out many of us knowingly or unknowingly have a long list of worthiness prerequisites such as:
- I’ll be worthy when I get that job promotion or reach xxxx salary level.
- I’ll be worthy when I’m thin and beautiful.
- I’ll be worthy when everyone thinks I’m a great parent.
- I’ll be worthy if I get perfect grades/scores/evaluations.
- I’ll be worthy if I can do it all and look like I’m not even trying.
Can you relate to any of these? Probably so. However, according to Brown, the heart of wholeheartedness is believing you are “worthy now. Not if. Not When…Right this minute. As is.”
Brown goes on to outline 10 guideposts to develop a lifestyle of wholehearted living:
- Cultivating authenticity: Letting go of what people think
- Cultivating self-compassion: Letting go of perfectionism
- Cultivating a resilient spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness
- Cultivating gratitude and joy: Letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark
- Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: Letting go of the need for certainty
- Cultivating creativity: Letting go of comparison
- Cultivating play and rest: Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth
- Cultivating calm and stillness: Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle
- Cultivating meaningful work: Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to”
- Cultivating laughter, song, and dance: Letting go of being cool and “always in control”
Interested in learning more about these themes and how to incorporate them into your life? In addition to Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, I also highly recommend these other books by her:
-Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
-I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am
-Rising Strong: The Reckoning the Rumble, the Revolution
-Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff
Both Brown and Neff also have Ted Talks well worth listening to on related ideas and topics.
Whether you are new to Shanghai or have lived here for a while, I hope you will consider giving wholehearted living a try as you go about your life here. No doubt you will gain many new perspectives from your time here. What better one than being able to recognize and embrace your inherent worthiness?