If you would have told me a year ago that I would be writing a blog about perfectionism and publishing this on a public platform, I would have done one of two things. I would have never started on this journey, or I would have been the best recovering perfectionist there was! When most people think of perfectionism they might think of someone who looks perfect, who acts better than everyone else, who does no wrong and who seems to have their life all together. Well, some of this perception is true, part of perfectionism for me was creating an image and living out that image. I was living in a way that I wanted others to view me. I was so fearful that if another person saw who I really am, I wouldn’t be loved and accepted. All of those personal struggles, “they belong to someone else”, parenting, “I already know what I am doing”, and as far as appearance, “remaining cool, collected and knowledgeable” is a must. The reason I call this process “recovery”, is because it is just that, I often have the urge every day to strive and do struggle with these old patterns. Through my process of perfectionism my world gradually became smaller and smaller. Now, every day I encounter situations, in which I become fearful of being seen. I feel the old pull at my ankles, “run away, you can’t do this.” It is a very slow process, and with faith, support, and honest balanced reflection I am healing and gaining strength.
I just recently went through a season of depression, I have a history of depression and now know the triggers that contribute to this painful place. I manage my mental health with medication, strong sleep maintenance, connecting with those I love, and practicing and teaching mindful self-compassion. I feel that striving for perfection was contributing to my depression symptoms. My standards and expectations for myself and others were so high, I was often feeling let down and hurt by others. My unrealistic and unbalanced outlook was creating further struggle for me.
Here I was at an all time low in my life, I really hit rock bottom and I could feel it. I was tired and I couldn’t do it anymore. The reality is I do have everything I need. I have a supportive husband, 3 healthy beautiful children, a growing small practice and am a licensed clinician. How could this be happening to me? This isn’t who I am. I began to cry and pray, “Lord, help me to let down my guard so that I may see myself clearly, so that I may help myself and begin to heal with you by my side, I can no longer do this on my own, I need you and others in my life.” I picked up the phone and called my sister, I told her everything I was feeling in that moment, I was a complete wreck and I didn’t care anymore. I asked her, “how can I help others heal, if I am not healed?” She said, “Mel, you can only have done the things that you have done and speak and help others so clearly because you have lived through this.” In that moment I realized, she gave me permission for connection. My thinking was that I had to be perfect and have all the answers to help others, but it’s not in my perfection of being a perfect person, but rather my presence in being completely human. I needed to be with others, not above others to feel connected and loved.
I started to reach out to close friends and family members. I received the most welcoming, supportive and loving responses. I feel in my heart that this was deeply needed for me to continue to heal and recover. I also feel it is need to sustain recovery. I was lucky enough to attend a Daring Greatly workshop a few weeks ago. This workshop is based on the research conducted by Brene Brown. I learned more about perfectionism and how we wear this as an armor to protect ourselves from being and feeling vulnerability. She describes the difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. She describes striving for excellence, as the ability to perform and do the best we can, because we know we can. Perfectionism is rooted in the idea, if we do well then we will win the approval of others. One is an intrinsic motivation, and the other is extrinsic. I had a moment of panic and thought to myself, “oh shit, I have both!” As fear bottled up in the pit of my stomach during this workshop, I began to think, “does everyone in this room know that I am a perfectionist.” I blurted out, “I am a recovering perfectionist”, the response was met with light hearted laughter. I just said my deepest darkest secret, and everything is still “OK”. This response surprised me and soon others were talking about their battles with perfection too. To me, perfectionism is painful, because you build your walls so carefully and tightly, you think no one can tear them down. Until you start tearing them down, and you feel lighter and begin to feel some freedom.
I recently had the awakening that I was struggling because as I raised my awareness, I was still coming from a place of perfection, not acceptance. I was still being hard on myself for the parts of me that so deeply wanted love and acceptance from others. Sharing these parts of ourselves with people we trust and love in an honest and open way is vulnerable, however, it is also vital to the reconnection process. Living in perfection and critical awareness is lonely, and makes me feel pressure to figure everything out on my own. This leaves little room for others to connect with me, and makes my world falsely safe. Connection makes us feel fully human, and sheds light on what we feel is the darkest parts of ourselves. I have been graced with a few family members and friends who practice this kind of honest reflection with others. I am learning that it’s not about the perfect response, its about the connection in the response that is important.
Often times I have found myself paralyzed by perfection in work and friend settings. Fearful that what I say will expose myself, or fearful that what I am going to say will turn someone away from me. I am beginning to learn to balance out these fears with balanced thoughts and self-compassion. When I practice being vulnerable, and the person responds in a way that doesn’t seem approving, I begin to feel panic in my body. I take a deep breath, and tell myself “be still and know the presence of god, know that you are OK, you want to feel approval, but you don’t need this to be loved and connected.” I have been practicing in self-compassion for almost 4 years now. Some of you who know me in our community, know that I teach self-compassion to others. The saying goes, “we teach what we need to know.” I teach and practice in self-compassion, because I deeply need self-compassion to work with and through perfectionism. Self-compassion is different than self-love. Practicing self-love can help you to practice self-compassion and vice versa. When we begin to love and accept ourselves just as we are, then we believe that we are also worthy of compassion and love.
The practice of self-compassion brought me back to faith. I hit a point recently in my life, it was January to be exact. When I realized that self-compassion was a practice that allowed me to unfold and understand more parts of myself, and offered me safety to begin to talk about them openly. However, I was still disconnected and felt an emptiness that could not be filled in any personal relationship. I began to pray and open myself up to vulnerability in faith. It was foreign to me at first, I wasn’t sure how to begin, but I knew that I needed to follow God. I didn’t know the first place to begin to practice, but it was the first time in my life that I wasn’t trying to be perfect. I was just being, and saying, and doing what I felt from my heart. When you start to practice something new, it feels different at first. Overtime, the practice turns into your living reality and you become as Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist would say, “compassionate hot mess”. For the first time in a long time, I was looking at my husband and children with full love and tenderness. I was seeing their needs for love and listening for moments of connection and acting on them. It was not just my family, but with my friends and other relationships that I had invested in as well.
My healing path lead me to self-compassion and then opening to faith, I like to refer to these two practices as safe practices. They are safe because they can be practiced alone, however, they become stronger when we practice them in our relationship with others. This is what it means to feel fully human, fully alive. I have learned the most about others, when I let go of what I think I know about myself. Breaking through cycles of perfectionism and disconnection takes courage and for me, to practice opening to courage also means that I am practicing in faith and self-compassion.