Living with Perfectionism – Part 2
by Rob Brookler
The simple, but very powerful first step in disarming our perfectionism is beginning to notice when it’s operating. We must start to detect – not judge, but simply observe – in what situations, with which people, and in what ways we are trying chiefly to prove or vindicate ourselves rather than being ourselves and expressing our natural strengths and nature.
As we mentioned in Part 1 of this article, there’s always a bit of a mix. And the idea is not to eliminate our every perfectionistic tendency. We must merely “shift" our focus so that we’re primarily aligned and invested with our aspirations and pure intentions rather than that perfectionism. To do this, we must see clearly the distinction between the two.
What is this distinction? The distinction between our perfectionism and our true aspirations lies in what our actions are serving: in what beliefs we are primarily serving.
Perfectionism will serve a mistaken belief that we are not enough, that we are never really enough. Whereas our healthy aspirations and intentions will arise naturally from our completeness, our clarity of purpose, our joy and curiosity, and our patient acceptance of ourselves.
Perfectionism is a response to a fear about who we are. Our healthy desires, on the other hand, are an expression of who we truly are.
Driven by perfectionism, the “goal” becomes more important than we are … and in attaining that goal, we and our welfare become somewhat “expendable.” Whereas guided and inspired by our aspirations and visions, we are nourished as we nourish our creations.
Knowing when we’ve crossed over into perfectionism. ‘Feeling’ the difference.
Again, it’s not an either/or proposition. And our best strategy is simply to monitor ourselves and catch ourselves when we begin to “stray” into perfectionism. Beyond the foundational differences we just outlined, often we’ll be able to “feel” a distinct difference.
Perfectionism pulls us outside of our strength and center – it pulls us away from ourselves – as we are responding to an external “pressure” to meet someone’s approval or to satisfy some ideal or “expectation.” (As we’ll shortly discuss in more detail, this also pulls us out of our power.) If we pay attention, we will feel this “positional” shift, this sense of being pulled “out there.” Noticing this, we are wise to take a breathe, “pull back,” and re-center.
Again, the truest and easiest way to do this is to realign with our strength and nature ... rather than any real or imagined expectation of how we should be. And to lightly refocus on our clear intentions in whatever we are doing or attempting to do. As we do this, we will feel our energy and our "position" return to us.
And there are other very tangible signs that should alert us that we’ve shifted into “perfectionism” mode.
Pressure to “get it right.” One sure sign we’ve strayed into perfectionism is when we primarily feel that pressure rather than enthusiasm and satisfaction in the pursuit of an endeavor. When perfectionism walks in, enjoyment starts to walk out. The clearest example of this is when a leisure pastime – a hobby, a game or sport – changes from being fun to being intensively competitive or obsessive. And gradually, instead of bringing us joy or recreation or diversion, the pastime becomes a frustration or a demand. Our perfectionism says: “I cannot really enjoy this unless I ‘get it right’.” So when an activity we love starts to make us more anxious than excited, we know we’ve allowed perfectionism to weigh it down.
Pleasing or “playing a role.” Our personal and professional roles – which are meant to nourish us or at least support and sustain us – can also become unnecessarily burdensome and costly under the pressure of perfectionism. We stress over being what we imagine to be the “perfect” parent or the perfect child. We work ourselves to death trying always to impress our employers, clients, and co-workers … always trying to get ahead. We puzzle endlessly over how to be a better husband or wife.
Now certainly, these roles and responsibilities ought to be important to us. And every role we play in life will require some investment of our energy, effort, and focus. But we must be careful not to step outside ourselves in hopes of “perfecting” the role … or spending all our energy primarily in hopes of winning approval. The role and our efforts should be shaped by who we are and by our natural strengths. The role should be an expression of who we are, rather than a justification or an apology for who we are. So when we find ourselves feeling desperate to please, exhausted by a hope of meeting others’ “expectations,” or terrified by the possibility of making a mistake, we have given over to our perfectionism.
Comparing/competing with an “ideal.” As we noted at the outset of this article, we are meant to be inspired by the excellence of others. Again, this is the healthy desire. We are not, however, meant to “measure” ourselves and our worth against the highly cultivated or “natural” gifts of others. Indeed, we can be downright brutal with ourselves believing our value lies and depends on “matching” these extraordinary and often very narrow standards.
The clearest illustration of this is our obsession with youth and “beauty.” This brand of perfectionism runs so deep that our physical bodies, which are meant to support us in realizing our accomplishments, have instead become the accomplishment. Now, body image is a major lesson of our time – and a highly sensitive area for us – so it’s probably unfair to dismiss the issue so glibly. But in truth, each of us is perfectly and precisely as we were created to be – in body, face, shape, size, and every other characteristic we were born with. In another words, it’s not an “error” that we don’t look like a fashion model or cannot dunk a basketball like an NBA star.
Investing in our gifts
Likewise, striving at middle-age to have the physique, the stamina, and the naturally youthful appeal of a 17-year-old will take a mountain of effort and time ... and with very mixed success. Indeed, while we may wish to invest some time and energy in exercise, diet, fashion, etc., our lesson is not ultimately to satisfy the "popular" definition of beauty, health, and strength.
The challenge is actually to reclaim our power and our responsibility to accept ourselves … and to see our own beauty, wholeness, and value. And we are wise to reserve our primary energy not in pursuing the often exaggerated and unrealistic standards of our culture, but in pursuit of our gifts, strengths, and aspirations. This is where our energy and focus belongs. This is where our energy is best spent – and where it will yield us the truest return.
By the way, for those times when we do get stuck in body-image perfectionism, here’s a secret. We become attractive when – and only when – we choose to see our beauty. That power is always and exclusively ours. And it is a choice. Choosing to see ourselves as attractive won’t necessary get us pictured in the fashion magazines, but the world does tend to see us (and treat us) as we see ourselves. So, if we wish to be seen as attractive and desirable, we must first make this determination – this conscious choice – ours.
As for other “models” of excellence and achievement, we must let these individuals and their mastery inspire and excite us rather than discourage us by comparison. It is that inspiration and excitement – not the harshness and unforgiving pressure – that is most powerful in leading us to our own excellence.
Because it speaks to our heart and our spirit, this inspiration aligns us with our particular “path” to discover and develop the gifts that we bring to this world. To the extent we are aligned with these dreams and aspirations, rather than our fears, our path will guide us – joyfully rather than arduously – to that excellence, that fulfillment, that grand expression that is uniquely ours.
Perfectionism vs. Dedication
Another reason perfectionism thrives and has appeal in our culture – indeed, “perfectionism” is often praised as a virtue – is that it works. Or at least, it seems to work. Perfectionistic people are productive. They’re committed, thorough, focused. Consequently, perfectionistic people typically succeed in their tasks. Great artists, pioneers, innovators are often described as perfectionistic, and their achievements credited to their obsession with their vision. But the question remains whether perfectionism was responsible or necessary for their success.
In point of fact, consistency of purpose, persistence, confidence, action, and vision are extraordinarily powerful in this world. They are essential ingredients in the formula for creation. And they are indeed virtues and qualities we should cultivate and practice. But these virtues are more of an “accident” of perfectionism rather than its defining quality. Determination, dedication, and clarity of purpose do not require us to be harsh, intolerant, and perfectionistic. We can be powerful in the world without being obsessive and single-minded to the point of being unrelenting and reckless with ourselves and others.
Indeed, it is our inspiration and pure intention, coupled with consistent, balanced action, that are most powerful in creating and manifesting in the world – and most beneficial (or at least benign) to the creations, inspirations, and welfare of others. Again, perfectionism is a kind of corruption of this healthy process, this pure formula.
Clarity and intention displaces fear
But because we are human, and because our fears can seem as compelling as our aspirations, we are prone to this imbalance, this admixture. We must be on guard for it. And when our perfectionistic tendencies start to take hold, we know that we’ve let fear and judgment get mixed into this otherwise pure formula.
The solution then is to subtract our fears out of the mix. Doing this takes a bit of discipline and determination. Fear won’t want to leave the mix. Fear is sticky, so removing it will take some conscious effort and finesse on our part. But, as we discussed at the outset of this article, beneath our perfectionism is the strong, healthy drive for our fulfillment. That true passion and enthusiasm. And our perfectionism (and the fears and wounded beliefs underlying it) will begin to flee in the presence of our true, pure aspirations … particularly as we begin to satisfy these truer needs and aspirations.
So, to help “displace” these fears, we need to add more of our joy, intention, and aspiration to the mix. In other words, when we feel the pressure of perfectionism – the intolerance, our impatience with ourselves, our impatience with our lives and with our efforts to create and achieve – it’s time to refocus on our pure intention.
This “refocusing” is much easier than it sounds. Here’s how. Just get a sense of all that energy and focus that we’ve attached to doing it right, to being as good or better than someone else, to finishing everything now, to proving ourselves to whomever or whatever. Get a sense of this huge investment. (It is a conscious investment on our part.) And then “draw” all this energy back to you. Reel it back in. Just try it. Just withdraw this energy, this investment away from these perfectionistic demands, and back to you. You’ll begin to feel the difference immediately.
Reclaiming our power
And you’ll like the feeling. Why? Because when we become perfectionistic, we have indeed given our energy away. We’ve given our power away … to someone else, or to some hostile, wounded belief about ourselves, or to some unrealistic or imagined “ideal,” or to some future time (when we’re finally “good enough”). We’ve surrendered that power to these misplaced, fear-based, perfectionistic notions. And we’ve deferred our joy and wholeness pending the achievement of this “perfection.”
Our task then is to reclaim that power for ourselves. We need to take back our role as the arbiter of our worthiness. We need to allow ourselves our sense of satisfaction in who we are now, our feeling of completeness. So when we get caught up in perfectionism, it’s our signal to pull back, get our bearings again, and return to our power and our clear intention.
Again, because doing this reconnects us with our deeper nature and drive, our fears and impatience will immediately begin to fade. And instead of looking outside ourselves and into the future for our sense of fulfillment and purpose, we’ll begin to sense and find a present and abiding richness in the path that this beautiful inspiration guides us upon.
A few last words on managing perfectionism …
Two more things to remember in addressing perfectionism.
First, the burden of perfectionism is something that we personally must drop. Why? Because it is we who are imposing it. Indeed, though we may feel surrounded by pressure to be meet some ideal, often it is only we who have this unrelenting expectation of us. But, in any case, it is we who must see the cost. Again, perfectionism can seem enticing. We must decide that it’s not a burden we choose to carry – that it’s not a good investment of our energy.
Second, we must appreciate that our perfectionism will not suddenly, completely, or permanently vanish. The reason this article is titled “Living with Perfectionism” – rather than “Eliminating Perfectionism” – is that perfectionism is a primary lesson of this life, this world, and this time. It will continue to challenge our balance.
Moreover, we must concede that as we wisely shift our investment and focus into our aspirations and true gifts (and away from our perfectionistic tendencies), our “perfectionism” will not be particularly happy with us. Our perfectionistic tendencies will frequently complain and tug at us to be appeased. We must be prepared for this and not let it discourage us. Knowing it to be a poor investment, we need to be content that our perfectionism must go for the most part unsatisfied.
Perhaps the greatest cost of perfectionism is that it narrows our view. As we’ve observed in other articles, when we see beauty and value only in what is “perfect,” we are seeing very imperfectly indeed. The real and inescapable problem with perfectionism is that we are, in fact, not in this life to perfect. We are here to learn and grow. And that learning, that growth, is foundational. Even the parts of us that we’ve left behind or would like to leave behind are critical elements of this foundation.
This life will also present many challenges … and we are not expected to meet these challenges with perfect grace. Indeed this learning is a sacred process … and if we must strive to perfect something, let it be our appreciation and our patience with ourselves and the sacred path of our growth.
For a full list of audio meditations to complement this article, click audio meditations home.
Copyright 2010 Planetwide Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.Meditations2Go.com.
Disclaimer: All content on this website, including texts, articles, and audio meditation recordings, is general information, and is not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, or other professional advice. It is the responsibility of the user to evaluate the completeness or usefulness of any information, opinion, advice or other content available through the Meditations2Go website and products.BACK TO FULL LIST OF ARTICLES