Lots of folks in countries like the U.S. are plagued by an overly-active, critical, inner voice that gets way too much “say” in how we experience life. I was inspired to write this article because a good number of my clients experience the pain of perfectionism. I suspect it will be useful to others, too: the cultural lust for achievement and the misconception that human worth is equal to performance have seeped deeply into our psyches. For some, it can be nearly impossible to move toward life goals or desires—much less enjoy life—because of this oppressive, ever-present evaluative “eye.” Plenty of people feel stymied by a sense that virtually no forward progress can be made unless a “perfect” or “winning” result can be guaranteed from the get-go.
Many “perfectionists” worry that if they stop being so hard on themselves, they will never accomplish anything. They worry they will grow soft and lazy, and fail in life. Actually, the reverse is truer. When we develop kindness and compassion for ourselves, our moods improve and we have more creative energy available to do good works in the world!
If you are limited by perfectionism, try some of these tips:
1. Nurture deep body-mind connection through a regular embodiment practice. When we can relax into the full intelligence of our conscious bodies, the evaluative mind can rest a bit. We can enjoy spontaneity again! We feel and trust that we are enough, just as we are. A psychotherapist trained in Body-Mind Psychotherapy and/or a Body Mind Centering practitioner can help you discover the many gifts of becoming more embodied. http://movementrevolutions.com/home/somatic-therapy-boulder-co/. I also recommend Susan Aposhyan’s book, “Natural Intelligence” to get you started.
2. Play with young children. Unless they are raised in unhealthy environments, children are the epitome of spontaneous, creative action. Perfectionism doesn’t stand a chance when you are openly and authentically engaged with kids being kids. They look at the world—and interact with it—in ways most adults could never imagine. When we truly engage with kids– especially in play that’s highly physical and imaginative – we enter a zone in which evaluation and comparison are completely irrelevant. Joy naturally flows through us. We exit that nasty game board of “good enough”/not “good enough” and enter a whole new realm. Follow the child’s lead in play, and it will be good for both of you!
3. DIVE RIGHT IN: Join a theater, comedy, dance, or other improvisational group. Improvisation in these venues challenges participants (in a fairly “low-risk” environment) to dive head-long into the possibility of “falling on your face.” In fact, these opportunities actually reframe would-be “mistakes” or “less than” moments into signs of SUCCESS (i.e., you’re really going for it!). As the saying goes, “if you’re going to mess up, mess up big!” This kind of thinking, put into action in a low-risk environment, will really help you shake off that pesky monkey on your back called “perfectionism”! When we practice improvisation of any kind, we kind of mess with the part of the brain that edits, that says “no,” that puts on the brakes. We learn how to be “in” our bodies, “in” the moment, saying “yes, yes, and yes” to whatever comes. This is GOLD for the pent-up perfectionist. If you’re in the Boulder area, I recommend theatre improv with Kristen Wilson, contact improvisation with Alicia Grayson, and Red Nose Workshops with Elizabeth Barron (to name just a few!).
4. …OR, DIP A TOE IN: Practice, in “small bites,” doing that thing that evokes your fear of failure … and do it WITH other people around. Nothing cures the fear of what may lie ahead like putting it behind you. If your fear is of singing for others, start with singing the chorus to a song with one or two close friends around. Afterward, notice that you didn’t die and that your friends still love you! If you’re an artist who fears sharing your work, start with sharing a piece you don’t consider your best with another artist and ask for feedback. Whatever talent you may posses doesn’t override the need for practice, discipline, and effort. Besides, nothing accounts for taste, so give yourself a break and give it a go!
5. Understand that your worth does not depend on how awesomely you perform. What?! I know–blasphemy, right? But it’s true. Many of us received attention in the form of evaluation for the things we produced, performed, or accomplished. Everything we did was seen with the eye of evaluation: good enough/not good enough. Particularly when the only time we received attention was in relation to how (well) we did something (vs. our effort or who we are) we internalize this voice as a constant critic: we see everything we do as above or below “bar.” Find ways of just being in your skin, being in your experience, feeling yourself … Relax and enjoy enough to know, on a body level, that your worth as a human being could never be measured by what you produce, your skill, talent, or knowledge.
6. Strive for excellence vs. being “the best.” Striving for excellence contains within it a sense of inherent movement (motivation) that comes from love or passion vs. fear. Striving for excellence can be void of ego: we want to do something excellently because we love what we are doing; because we want to contribute to the world in a positive way; because we love the exquisiteness of what we can create; because we love excellence itself. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is about ego. Instead of the joy of a process, curiosity, or delight in the outcome, everything we do becomes colored with the fear of failure. A mindset that anything less than “perfect” or “the best” is unacceptable stymies creativity and brilliance. In this way, perfectionism is the antithesis to excellence.
7. Think about the people you love and admire. Are they perfect? Chances are pretty good that they are not. In fact, what we tend to love about one another are those little quirks that make people unique. Face it: if someone COULD be perfect – or even close to it—wouldn’t that be a little irritating or boring? We love people for who they are: not because of how well they do something. Not for their “success.” You are no different. Do you really want to be perfect, or do you want to be loved and admired just as you are – quirks and all?
8. Read biographies of highly successful scientists, business people, artists, etc. Learn how many times they “failed” before they achieved success. Realize the truth in the phrase, “the only failure is not trying.” As in science, there are no unsuccessful experiments in life because all experiments produce results that can teach us. All outcomes are useful if we are curious, open, engaged, and choose to see them that way.
9. Practice self-compassion and what Buddhists call “loving-kindness.” We may be the type to give others the benefit of the doubt, but are overly critical with ourselves; or, we may have high expectations in general and find we are pretty critical of everyone. Either way, cultivating compassion for ourselves benefits everyone. Here are some great resources: http://www.wildmind.org/metta; “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” by Kristin Neff; “The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness” by Pema Chodron.
10. Notice when your “critical eye” is “sleeping” and let that teach you. Maybe it’s when you’re skiing, playing baseball, praying, meditating, painting, helping a friend, gardening, spending time in nature. When are you “in a zone,” and find yourself merged with what is happening right here, right now? Maybe these moments are keys to the true value of life, showing us that the built-in flip-side of credentials, achievements, and accolades (even those in our own minds!) is low self-worth and feelings of failure. We give up striving for perfection (and its catch-22 game!) when we recognize that the greatest satisfactions in life have nothing to do with our egos.
11. Visit a country (or watch a documentary) where the individual is not seen as the central unit of society, and where there is not the “luxury” of thinking about individual success or failure. In many places around the world, action stems from necessity, from making sure needs are met and ensuring that everyone is included in the safety net of connectedness. To help weaken the illusion of a separate self, get involved with a cause, ask how you can help someone, reach out and connect, remember you are part of a local, regional, and global community.
12. Hang out with people who really enjoy life. It may just rub off on you!