Living with Perfectionism – Part 1
by Rob Brookler
The reason “perfectionism” is so pervasive and so difficult for us to shake is that there is an element of it that is actually quite healthy ... and a naturally strong force within us. This healthy thread is of course our desire to grow. Our desire to become more of who we are, our desire to create and refine, our desire to excel and rise above our fears, our desire to be loved. These needs, these drives, are not only healthy and fundamental to our deepest nature, they are sacred. And being sacred, our pursuit of them is meant to nourish and honor us.
But to the extent that these very pure and powerful drives get mixed up with our fears and wounded beliefs about ourselves, their power can become a bit unbalanced … and begin to work against us. Fed by feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt, our fine and healthy aspirations can turn instead into anxious struggles. Believing we are flawed or deficient, our otherwise healthy appetites for acknowledgment and achievement can deepen into neediness or obsessive, demanding behavior. And our sacred desire to be more can become a punishing belief that we are never enough.
So this perfectionism is, for lack of a better word, a corruption of our fine and healthy spirit of growth. And unlike this healthy spirit, our perfectionism will tend to deplete us rather than nourish us. Perfectionism will tend to lead us away from ourselves, rather than to our greater selves.
Again, the confusion and difficulty with perfectionism is that it does travel so closely with these finer motivations. Fortunately, by simply shifting our energies away from our wounded beliefs and back toward our true, deeper motivations, we begin immediately to disarm our perfectionism. As we’ll shortly discuss, making this adjustment, this “shift,” is far easier that we might expect. And in doing so, we instantly begin to shed the heaviness that perfectionism creates … and we begin to rediscover more of the joy that our aspirations are meant to carry with us.
What’s so wrong with perfectionism anyway?
Being that we have such a strong culture of perfectionism – that we tend to worship being “the best,” often at any cost – it’s worth examining the underpinnings and actual costs of perfectionism. And one may well ask, “What is so wrong with wanting, expecting, and settling for nothing less than excellence and perfection?”
And the answer to this question is a very qualified “Nothing at all.” Again, our healthy nature will be inspired by excellence in others and will aspire to our own unique excellence. This is the healthy root. These healthy motivations turn unhealthy, however, when this “excellence” becomes a necessary condition for accepting and appreciating ourselves and others: when we see and value ourselves and others only through what is typically a very narrow definition of excellence or perfection or importance or beauty. And the costs of perfectionism begin to mount when we grow intolerant (and even hostile) toward ourselves and others when these ideals and conditions are not met.
Because perfectionism is so pervasive, it’s sometimes hard to see these costs. They accrue slowly, but tellingly. Again, to the extent that our worthiness is tied to some “ideal” of perfection – an ideal, by the way, that is bound to withdraw from us even as we approach it – we will tend to withhold from ourselves the appreciation, the respect, the nurturing we need to actually thrive and grow in a healthy way.
This “withholding” can be subtle, often unconscious. It manifests as a general tendency to see and treat ourselves harshly and stingily and to discount our current achievements and accomplishments. Likewise, we will manage (again, often unconsciously) to turn away from or discount the support, the rewards, the love offered to us by others because we believe our current state of “imperfection” does not merit it.
Over time this treatment can leave us feeling fatigued, angry, impatient, and dissatisfied. We can grow tired because we fail to give ourselves our needed, ongoing rest and sustenance (physically and emotionally). We can grow angry because we are essentially mistreating and failing to properly credit ourselves and our value (… just as we would grow angry if this harsh treatment came from another). We can grow impatient and difficult because we have built up a deficit and a demand that neither we nor anyone else can fill. And even should we succeed in reaching our goal or “ideal,” our satisfaction will tend to be short-lived because no achievement will convince us that we are worthy if we believe we are not.
This is, of course, the primary wounded belief underlying perfectionism: the belief that we are not enough – that we need to be “perfect” to be enough, that we can find joy and fulfillment in a pursuit only if we do it flawlessly, and that we don’t deserve reward (acceptance, support, peace, rest, happiness, love) until some future condition, some ideal state, is achieved. As we’ll discuss further, it is actually this wounded belief that can hold us back and rob us of our satisfaction and fulfillment, even as we drive ourselves harder and harder.
Perfectionism actually wastes our time and energy
There’s an important lesson here, especially for those of us who are Type-A personalities – we overachievers who pride ourselves on our intensity, drive, and efficiency in reaching our goals. Perfectionism is extremely inefficient. Why? Because it wastes energy and often “drives” us in the wrong direction.
In being relentless and harsh with ourselves we “tie up” our energy. At the heart of perfectionism is a sort of rejection of the self – the wounded belief that we are unacceptable unless or until something more is achieved or some flaw is “fixed” within us or within our lives. To the extent that we are driven by this wounded belief, we are essentially at war with ourselves. It’s more of a “cold” war – a hostile, unforgiving undercurrent toward ourselves and our efforts. But it’s a war nonetheless, and war is extremely wasteful. It wears us down. It engages our energy and resources, with little return on our investment – particularly as we are warring with and depriving ourselves.
Moreover, to the extent that our achievements are an attempt to compensate for our “imperfections” – again, the wounded belief at work – we will tend to pursue the wrong things. We are less likely to create the opportunities, the careers, the relationships, the achievements that actually speak to our nature because we are not responding to this nature. We are instead responding primarily to that mistaken belief about ourselves and our worth. We are, in fact, responding to a need that doesn’t really exist, a deficit we are creating and sustaining with this false, punishing belief. And we can search long and hard before we realize that no one and no amount of achievement (or perfection) will truly fill this deficit.
Likewise, this wounded belief will tend to undermine us despite our work and efforts toward our goals. Because our beliefs, as much as our actions and conscious intentions, govern what comes to us in this life, this underlying feeling of unworthiness will hold us back. Believing we don’t really deserve support, happiness, success, etc., we can “miss” or even sabotage the opportunities for which we are working and striving.
Most of all, perfectionism is the roundabout course because it tends to lead us away from ourselves. Indeed, our perfectionism can become a kind of substitute for ourselves and our deeper fulfillment – a diversion. We manufacture a need or give exaggerated importance to a relatively superficial need or task. We will then tend to obsess over these needs and tasks to create a “sense” of fulfillment, completion, and accomplishment. Meanwhile, our deeper, truer aspirations and fulfillment remain unmet.
But don’t despair. We all have these perfectionistic tendencies at work within us and within our lives. Fortunately, we begin to disempower these tendencies immediately with our awareness of them.
Addressing Perfectionism: The Ground Rules
Because perfectionism can run very deep, it can be rather difficult to address “head on” … so before we begin, a few ground rules.
Ground Rule 1: Proceed lightly, patiently. Since perfectionism can so easily co-opt our purest intentions – even our intentions to disarm our perfectionism – a light touch is required. The impulse to “charge” ahead will almost certainly be our perfectionism at work. As we’ll discuss in greater detail shortly, we’re not fixing ourselves – as our perfectionism would tend to dictate. We are simply adjusting ourselves so that we are responding to our true needs and fulfillment more so than our wounded beliefs. This “adjustment” will require us to pause and reflect a bit as we act. (And because perfectionism is a sticky pattern and a habit, this adjustment is often expressed in what we don’t give our energy to.) So, let’s proceed with patience.
Ground Rule 2: Ease up on the judgment. We all have some wounded and limiting beliefs – impacts to our self-esteem, to our confidence, to our self-worth, to our self-image. It’s part of being human, so there’s no need to judge ourselves or get discouraged as we uncover these wounded beliefs. And as much as we may dislike it, this wounding is in fact part of our divinely imperfect nature, and it actually helps shape our growth as we come to heal this wounding. [For more on this, see Meditations2Go Article: “A Context for Healing.”] So let’s honor this healing process and try to treat these wounded places with compassion rather than disdain and intolerance.
Ground Rule 3: Keep perfectionism in its proper perspective. Perfectionism is not an either/or proposition. And it too is a very human condition. Again, along with our healthy, natural aspirations to grow and excel, we all have perfectionistic tendencies. In every endeavor, we are driven to some extent by ego, by doubt, by a “need” to perform well, by a fear of not performing well. Moreover, there are occasions in life when we feel we must “prove” ourselves against our own fears and self-doubts, sometimes at our own expense. So let’s approach our perfectionism not as an evil, but simply as very positive energy that we’ve somewhat misdirected.
If we properly understand these ground rules, we’ll wish to begin not by immediately “going at” ourselves trying to dissect and resolve any and all our feelings of unworthiness … and getting all this done by next week. Again, this would be our perfectionism at work. Instead, our first step is simply to develop our awareness to those times and occasions when we are responding chiefly to our wounded feelings: in what situations, in what roles, with which people, and in what ways we are primarily trying to prove or vindicate ourselves and our worth (… rather than responding to our wholeness and true nature). There are tell-tale signs … which will explore in detail in Part 2 of this article.
In Living with Perfectionism – Part 2, we’ll learn how to identify and disarm our perfectionistic tendencies … and reconnect with our true needs, aspirations, and joys.
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