I hope it’s been a good week for you. By good, I mean I hope it’s been a week where you’ve balanced the inevitable struggle of creating a satisfying life with the soothing aspects of self-care. I hope you did all of this while learning something new and/or important about yourself in the spirit of your own growth.
In other words, I hope you’re fully living your beautiful life! Personally, that is what I am shooting for these days.
Of course, sometimes, I forget how to do that. This happens when I’m surviving a string of sticky days while still half-moved into my new house. In these stressful moments, I feel out of control. This feeling of powerlessness causes me to feel like get my act together. I attempt to do this by becoming overly interested in how my life needs to look great from the outside, and ignoring my own very real self-care needs.
During these moments, my mind tells me that the most important things I can do is balance meaningful work with earnest volunteering and take in massive amounts of organic green vegetables and fancy protein powers, all while choosing the perfect earrings that complement my tastefully understated outfit. Then my mind reminds me that I should be Instagramming all these great moments to get thousands of little heart affirmations that prove how wonderful my life looks to the rest of the world.
This all sounds good until I check in and realize that this is my perfectionism flaring back up. As social researcher Brene Brown eloquently describes it:
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’
Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough, so rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.
Feeling shamed, judged, and blamed (and the fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience. Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame: ‘It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.’”
Ever since I was young, I have yearned so deeply to finally become perfect. I so hoped it would solve all the problems that felt way too big and scary for my young self to handle. This means I’ve danced with perfectionism long enough to know that it absolutely NEVER gives me what I am looking for in my life.
What I crave most is creativity, connection and a deeper relationship with my own spirit. And yes, perfectionism promises these things. It does an amazing job of telling me just how bulletproof I will be if I can just get my healthy eating together and figure out how to break through to the next income bracket.
Because it is so seductive, I always forget that perfectionism doesn’t work, and I keep trying for it anyway.
I’ve come to recognize that like any addiction, I will work with perfectionism for the rest of my life. Rather than try to make my perfectionism go away -- thus adding a heaping dose of perfectionism on top of my perfectionism, woah -- I’ve come to recognize the warning signs of becoming lost in this fear-based mindset.
My Perfectionism Tip-Offs:
Tip-Off #1: When I’m stuck in my perfectionism loop, I don’t feel close to people. I don’t feel close to people because I am mercilessly comparing myself to them and usually ending up either better or worse off than them, in my estimation. I feel a lot of competition and stressful energy in our interactions. This makes me feel really separate and lonely.
Self-Care Antidote: When I notice I am feeling competitive or lonely, I reach out to another human being who understands perfectionism. I call a trusted friend and tell her how messy everything feels right now. She sympathetically hums along with me as I tell my big, bad truth, and relates to what I’ve said because she goes there too, sometimes. By the end of our chat, she reminds me of my infinite strength. I leave our conversation feeling much more connected to someone I care about, and usually also to the world as a whole. If I can’t find a friend for this vulnerable connection, I write my messy truth in my journal. My journal is such a great friend -- she just listens and listens, like she has all day to hear me out. I almost always feel better afterward.
Tip-Off #2: I know I’m in perfectionism mode when I feel really bad about making mistakes. I beat myself up for anything I’ve done wrong (especially when I’ve disappointed other people). Then I start drudging up any and all mistakes I’ve made in the past. I use the words “should have” a lot, and say them to myself in a really mean tone of voice. I become a total people-pleaser who will say or do just about anything to ensure that someone isn’t mad at me. By the end of this inner tirade, I have about as much self-esteem as a piece of used chewing gum.
Self-Care Antidote: I take a deep breath and gently say, “Wow, I’m being really hard on myself.” Then I bravely take responsibility for what I’ve done. If I can fix something, I fix it. If I need to apologize, then I say, “I’m sorry.” I recognize other people’s part in the mistake and don’t take on their responsibility. I say the Serenity Prayer over and over. I remind myself that everyone is allowed to make mistakes, and that I’m included in the idea of “everyone.” I ask myself, “what’s right about this mistake?” and see if I can find a creative reframe. I live and learn and trust that I can’t see the whole scope of the issue from the place I’m standing.
Tip-Off #3: I’m definitely in lost in perfectionism when I am overly critical of my body. I can especially tell it’s perfectionism when I’ve felt fine about myself the day before (or hour before), and then suddenly my face and stomach and thighs all look weird. In these moments, I am lost in shame and just want to hide from the world. If I am getting dressed to go somewhere, there’s usually a huge pile of clothes on my bed, because nothing I put on looks right.
Self-Care Antidote: First, I sit down and drink a glass of water. This helps me to get back into my body. If I am hungry, I eat something, and if I’m not, I don’t. If I am going out, I consider canceling so I can spend the night relaxing (because I’m usually stressed in these moments). If I can’t cancel, I put on my most flowing, happy-making dress and a beautiful shade of lipstick. I tell myself that I love the people I love because they are fascinating people and not because they have perfect bodies. I listen to affirming music and dance, because a body is a wonderful thing to dance with. I remember that most women (and a lot of men) I know are struggling with body image, and that I am so not alone. When I have a calm moment, I ask myself what is really going on -- because it’s almost never really a body-image issue -- and share it with a friend or my journal.
These are my biggest perfectionism indicators. Of course, there are more that can come up in a variety of ways. (Procrastination is a big one that will warrant its own post someday.)
Your tip-offs might look a little or a lot different for you. What’s important is to notice when you’re moving into perfectionism and feeling lonely, empty or overly critical. When you get a glimmer of this awareness, then use your best self-care techniques to gently yet surely guide yourself back to your center.
You’ll know when you are back in touch with your heart and spirit. The warmth of this connection with yourself is accompanied by many delicious sighs, and the feeling of real self-friendship.
Looking at this issue is important, because when it goes unchecked, perfectionism will suck the life out of all of us. Many people spend their whole lives distracted. Now more than ever, we need every ounce of life we can get. This life is the only thing that will help us to continue showing up bravely, and creatively working with the many hurt places in our world.
When we can mindfully work with it, perfectionism will transform into real compassion. We see how we are all struggling with real problems, and despite those struggles, most of us are still showing up with our amazing human powers of dignity, kindness and ingenuity.
With clear eyes, we take off our shields of perfectionism (thanks for that image, Brene) and finally show our messy, beautiful human form. In that moment of immense bravery, we allow ourselves to be inspired by and inspiring to others. Finally feeling the sticky air of real life, we let the immenseness of the world in, which has never smelled so real, so gorgeously good.