I am an imperfect person – and I love it

If happiness is “the state of mind in which one does not desire to be in any other state,” as the famous researcher of flow experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, then self-consciousness, shame, envy, jealousy, embarrassment, and guilt defeat happiness.”[1]


It is happiness to which I strive. I have taken a long hard look at my life and decided that ultimately I want to be HAPPY in my life. If I need to earn a lot of money, or obtain great status, or become famous in order to be happy, well, then I guess I’ll have to work at those goals. However, I believe that those items, in and of themselves, will not make me happy. I’ve written before about whether money makes me happy. And, I’m sure I’ll write about the other things, which do, or do not make me happy later. But right now, I want to talk about those things, which act COUNTER to my goal of being happy. As the quote above indicates, there are a variety of emotions that can affect one’s happiness. Shame is one of those emotions.




I grew up as a child of a mixed racial marriage. Perhaps now that is not such an unusual event (there is even a website which is devoted to people of mixed ancestry: mixednation.com), however, when I was a child in the 1970’s, I was an outlier. So, children being children in the 1970’s, I was bullied and derided for nothing more than the colour of my skin.


I was also a smart and precocious young boy. While I was gifted with a quick intellect (which I believed was a positive gift), I only later came to realize that the flip side of that “golden coin” was social ostracism. As a child (and even as a young adult), I was not part of the “in crowd”. Not only was I not part of the “in” crowd, I wasn’t part of ANY crowd. I was alone. And, I totally understand why those children kept me at bay. I was not interested in their schoolyard games; I was more interested in talking with the adults who were having interesting conversations. Of course, the adults found me intriguing: a child who could converse at their level. They often WANTED me to be part of their discussions. This, in turn, further developed my intellect, and deepened my desire to be part of the adult crowd (after all, who doesn’t want to be a part of a group that finds you interesting and comments favourably to your parents about your smarts!). However, turn the penny, and the backside reveals a lack of developing age-appropriate social skills…those intangible skills which are necessary in order to deal with your peers. The two sides of the coin fed each other, and only by the time I hit high school did I realize that I was missing a large set of skills devoted to social competence.



Ok, back to Shame. One way that makes you feel ashamed of yourself is to hear negative comments about yourself. And, I can assure you from personal experience, the best way for a child to get their peers to say negative comments about him or her is to not acquire necessary social skills and at the same time act in a way and have characteristics which set that child apart. And, boy, did I have negative comments about myself.


What did those negative comments do to me? Well, they made me feel unloved. As Brené Brown says: “Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable – it’s the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy”.[2] Those comments cause me to feel unlovable.

The Gifts of Imperfection

Not only were negative comments either hurled at me (in the form of childish taunts), but also words were spoken behind my back. These words, not directed TO me, still stung…I heard of them from the select people who could deal with my idiosyncrasies. The fact that people said these nasty things about me, and the fact that they didn’t say them to my face made me feel excluded; I didn’t belong to the group (cool or otherwise). Brown says further that, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”.[3] And that shame was painful.

As Leonard Mlodinow says, “Social rejection doesn’t just cause emotional pain; it affects our physical being. In fact, social relationships are so important to humans that a lack of social connection constitutes a major risk factor for health, rivalling even the effects of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of physical activity”.[4] I HURT. Oh, that social ostracism hurt bad. Real bad. But, what was I to do?

Subliminal - How your unconscious mind rules your behaviour

I knew what to do! Even if it was only a subconscious thought, I KNEW what worked in the past with the adults. I would try my hardest to be PERFECT.


As a child, with the adults in my life, the more I spoke as an adult, the more I acted as an adult, the more precise my actions, the better my math skills, the finer my piano playing…the more praise I received. And that praise fuelled positive feelings inside me. So, if I couldn’t have the support and camaraderie of my peers, then I could always rely upon the praise of adults. Their praise raised my self-esteem, which was battered by being excluded by my peers. Unfortunately, “…a major symptom of the self-esteem trap is a hair trigger for shame or humiliation for ordinary human failings, mistakes, and less-than-perfect beauty, success, and achievement”.[5] I became reliant upon the praise of others for my self-esteem. Thus, when I was not “perfect” or made a mistake, I internalized the fear that I would not receive praise. And, without that external praise – well, I was nothing. The trouble is, perfection is an impossible standard to achieve. And my avoidance of dealing with the shame that I felt only fuelled my perfectionism: “The problem is that when we don’t claim shame, it claims us. And one of the ways it sneaks into our lives is through perfectionism”.[6]


Who wants to live with, or socialize with, someone who is “perfect”? Someone who always get the high marks in school, someone who is always called upon by the teacher to give the right answer, someone who does so well that others cannot possibly compete. No one.


Flag of Québec


I recall when I was about 15 years old I went on a cultural exchange to a Québec to learn how to speak French. It was there that I learned much more than the language. I learned, the hard way, that being perfect was a recipe for social exclusion. The lesson came in two parts, yet it all happened in chemistry class. Chemistry is, at the high school level, a fairly universal subject – whether you speak English or French, H2 + O = H2O (or water). As such, I did very well on my first test…too well. 98%. Unfortunately, the teacher was so impressed that he announced to the class that I had done well. And, he did it in a manner, which made all the other students feel bad: “hey, this anglo got the best mark in the class and he doesn’t even speak the language, what is wrong with you students?”. Well, that was the end of my social acceptance for a long time. Later in the semester, realizing my mistake, I made a concerted effort to pass, barely (so as to NOT stand out).[7] It was a dawning of a slow realization that my attempts at seeking perfection would not only not work out well, they could backfire!


As I grew older, my intelligence was not so startlingly different from my peers. As I went through high school and university I found there were MANY other people who were also quite smart…and many of them had a social intelligence that I didn’t have. As such, not only did I (understandably) receive less praise from my parents and their peers, but my attempts to avoid that shame by being “perfect” were backfiring: my self-esteem cratered. Enter: Depression.


So, what have I learned?


First, as Aristotle said, know thyself. I had to learn what the triggers were that caused me to feel shame. As Brené Brown says: “The easiest way to know shame is to cultivate an awareness of our physical shame symptoms…I know that I’m struggling with shame when that warm wash of inadequacy comes over me, my heart races, my face feels hot, my mouth gets dry, my armpits tingle, and time slows down. It’s important to know our personal symptoms so we can get deliberate in our response to shame.[8]


Then, I had to learn how to deal with the shame. And I have learned that the best way to deal with shame is to cultivate shame resilience. Brené Brown categorizes “…the four elements of shame resilience: Name it. Talk about it. Own your story. Tell the story”.[9] And, ultimately, that is what I am doing here. I am hoping that through this process I will become resilient to my shame. And then, as part of that resilience, I can move away from the necessity to be perfect. And without striving for perfection (which I now realize is impossible to attain), I will not fall short and feel ashamed. The cycle will be broken.


When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness – the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we are supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and proving. Our sense of worthiness – that critical important piece that gives us access to love and belonging – lives inside of our story[10]…shame is about fear, blame and disconnection. Story is about worthiness and embracing the imperfections that bring us courage, compassion, and connection”.[11]


I am an imperfect person. And I love it.






[1] Polly Young-Eisendrath, “The Self-Esteem Trap”, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), p. 199.

[2] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 39.

[3] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 39.

[4] Leonard Mlodinow, “Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behaviour”, (New York, NY: Vintage, 2012), p. 84.

[5] Polly Young-Eisendrath, “The Self-Esteem Trap”, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), p. 32.

[6] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 56.

[7] I actually did the test, figured out which answers I could answer to get a passing grade – 50% – and then deliberately marked the other answers incorrectly.

[8] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 46.

[9] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 44.

[10] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 23.

[11] Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 46.

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