The Painful Pursuit of Perfection

The Painful Pursuit of Perfection

Life sometimes feels like an uphill struggle.

To-do lists keep getting longer, distractions get louder, and expectations are damn hard to fulfill. Pressures placed by society, family and social groups, religious affiliations, the media, work, even ourselves, can alarmingly weigh us down. Pressure, and the stress accompanying it, feels terrifyingly heavy.

In my own life, I feel the pressures of being a small business owner, a wife, a daughter and a friend.

My husband asks why the dishes and laundry are never done and why I wait until the last minute to get to the grocery store. My parents ask when they can expect a grandchild. I feel separated from my Mom friends and family because I don’t qualify to be in their club, and evidently I have no clue what overwhelm feels like. I am behind on my continuing education in massage therapy because I have been studying the business side instead. I want to factor in more white space in my schedule to make room for taking care of myself, spending time with God, and to be available for my friends. I’d like to take my dogs for a walk. I’d like to have time to exercise, shower and eat breakfast most mornings. I’d like to fit back into my “skinny” jeans. I want flawless hair and skin.

And while I keep my plates spinning I get to see everyone’s perfectly edited highlight reel on social media; their 6-figure businesses, easily attained beach ready bodies, and beautiful, well-behaved children and GQ husbands who take out the garbage.

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Photo by Katie Hall Photography www.photosbykatiehall.com

Life appears effortless and awesome, and I feel more and more disconnected and ungrounded.

Sometimes I find myself asking, “Nina, what the F is wrong with you? Why can’t you keep up?”

The challenges feel mighty and sometimes the only sweetness I savor is from the organic bakery nearby.

 

A lot of my stress–my soul pressure–comes from feeling like I’m not enough.

I often feel the sharp point of perfectionism. It’s not unusual for me to think, “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t know enough”.

These thoughts regularly cause me tremendous anxiety and fear. This fear makes it impossible to respond productively to any challenge in front of me, undermining my confidence and abilities in overcoming adversity.

The little voice in my head repeats my failings on a loop, and there is no way I can overcome the barrier in front of me.

Growth stops. Stress remains.

To make matters worse, I plug into the self-defeating shame I hear in my head and allow it to fuel my actions– which at this point are completely irrational and not very productive. This is where I’m a mess and become the person no one wants to be around and everyone thinks should be medicated.

I feel unfit for human consumption.

 

I am a perfectionist.

I’d like to think owning this characteristic will help me become a recovering perfectionist.

Being a perfectionist goes way beyond setting high standards for oneself, developing mastery and excellence, or having a keen eye for detail. These are positive attributes, but a perfectionist takes it a step further; it becomes a hard-driving force behind identity that stifles creativity and puts pressure on relationships.

For a perfectionist, a challenge presents a Win/Fail opportunity; the lessons learned along the way are not always seen. The journey is bleak and fraught with self-defeat.

If you win you are a Winner, if you fail you are a Failure. It’s deeply personal, internalized, and insulated.

I’ve set unusually high, often unobtainable, standards for myself. I was counseled at some point in my early academic career to remember, “Even when you know you’ve done a good job, always remember someone else has done better than you”. I grabbed on tightly to the idea that if someone out performed me, I was not as much of a blessing to my family.

Second Place is really First Loser.

I got paid for A’s on my report card; B’s awarded me a lecture on how I didn’t work hard enough. Couple that mentality with the majority of my childhood friends being high-level over-achievers who ranked higher than me, I often felt sub-par. I was exhibiting disordered stress patterns in the 2nd Grade.

 

Sometimes these standards trickle over onto the people closest to me.

When I am tough on myself, I become tough on everyone around me. I feel angry, judgmental and hypercritical. My power cord is plugged in the wrong outlet of criticism and punishment instead of love and understanding.

In my professional life, I have found some balance to perfectionism. It has driven me to pursue high quality education from exceptional teachers, and I have created a practice model not typically found in the massage therapy profession in my community. However, when I try to expand on the ideas of growing professionally, building my practice, and designing a new practice model, perfection paralysis takes hold and stops me in my tracks. The little “you aren’t good enough” voice speaks up.

I feel unworthy and useless when my ideas don’t pan out the way I expected them to.

When I can’t seem to figure out how social media or network marketing works, or newsletters go unopened, ignored and unread, I hear, “nobody cares about what you have to say. Nobody cares about you”! And, for some, that may be true; opening myself up to share my story makes me feel exposed.

I am opening myself up to outside criticism and judgment, and Perfectionist Me is freaking out.

 

There are other times when I’m plugged into something way more powerful and I feel alive and on fire.

Self-acceptance and love wash over me and I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to. In this space I feel like setbacks are lessons, not attacks, and I have the calm perspective to see the proper course correction needed to get back on track. I feel inspired, plugged into genius, brilliance and divinity. Options are available, lessons are learned gracefully, and my growth and maturity level up.

I can lovingly laugh at myself. I feel relaxed.

This is where I want to live all of the time!

 

I’m slowly learning to positively and truthfully re-identify myself.

For me, this has been a deeply spiritual lesson, and I greatly rely on my mentors at the church my husband and I attend. I have been loved and challenged at the same time, and the newfound conclusions I am coming to, based off of God’s Love, have been difficult, rewarding, and much needed.

My closest friends, my connection network, are also an integral part of helping me learn, as Brene Brown calls it, “the gifts of imperfection”. I can trust them to not demand perfection from me, and they continuously remind me to be gentle to myself. I know they have the courage and strength to hear my story and support me in it, and sometimes help lift me out of it.

They have the stamina to love me, not despite my imperfections, but because of them.

 

As to the other bits that fire up my perfectionism, with a lot of talk therapy, research and prayer on the issues at hand, I’ve come to understand some things are out of my hands and will always be out of my hands.

It’s not worth it to harshly criticize myself for other peoples’ actions. What others do in their lives has no significant impact on my own.

We all have agency for our own actions, and not everyone is going to like everyone else. I can’t please everyone no matter how hard I try, and I am not a failure if I fail to make people like me.

I regularly remind myself I can only do what I can do, when I can do it.

 

With more love, understanding, and acceptance of myself, and everyone around me, recognizing we are all imperfect people, life feels sweeter, more brilliant, and divine. There is more flow and less crashing.

There is more compassion and empathy.

Challenges are met with grace and gentleness, and don’t feel like personal attacks, but opportunities to really learn what I am capable of. I just may surprise myself!

I can certainly deal with more of that in my life. I crave more of that in my life.

I think the world needs more understanding and acceptance and less criticism and judgment. It starts here, with myself.

It’s completely my choice, despite any challenge or adversity that comes my way, to choose not to let the stress of perfectionism in when it knocks on the door.

Do I choose criticism, or patience? Judgment, or understanding?

I choose gentleness and love. Perfectionism can knock, but she can’t come in.