How to Avoid the traps of Perfectionism
Perfectionism at an early age
When I was in Junior School—quite some time ago now—I took part in a school Nativity Play. Wanting to do something a bit different the school included a Social Worker in the play to check in on why the pregnant mother and her husband were contemplating giving birth in a stable. The Social Worker was kindly but bossy—perfectly turned-out and very sure of her own place in the scheme of things. While my friends got to dress up as angels and donkeys and shepherds, I got to put on my best coat and scarf and play the role of the Social Worker, a real Goodie Two Shoes. Over the years my parents used to talk about what a good Social Worker I made and embarrassed me and several hopeful boyfriends with the inevitable photos. What they did not discuss was that even then I was influenced by perfectionism.
The perfectionist expectations of parents
Over the years I have sometimes thought of that Social Worker with a mixture of reluctant affection and some exasperation. The thought, ‘If only she had known then ….’ comes to my mind. My parents did not push me unduly as I was growing up but they certainly instilled in me the importance of having standards, of being well-organized, of doing well and not falling into bad habits. Of course, as soon as I left home and set out on my own I did my best to do all of those things just in order to check out how it worked away from the parental gaze. It took me years to come to any idea of who I was. I was caught in a struggle to be free and independent but at the same time full of fear. What if my freedom could only be bought by dropping those standards I had had instilled in me? I remember during one of my university terms I made the decision to be untidy because tidiness was so rigid. For about 6 weeks I lived in semi-squalor until a friend asked me what I was doing and the whole experiment appeared ridiculous!
Perfectionism as the wish for love
Perfectionism comes in many forms but it is always to do with the wish for love and acceptance. I wanted my parents’ love because I was not sure how to make send of the world without it. They seemed to make their love conditional on me having a certain set of standards and achieving a certain way of living. Part of my growing up was to find the courage to challenge this, which I did in fits and starts. We influence each other in so many ways that can be subtle and almost invisible but take years to unravel. If only my parents had been able to bring me up to understand that life is messy, that mistakes are inevitable but rarely fatal and that we can aim to be the best of ourselves without punishing ourselves along the way. Instead, probably scared themselves and wanting the best for their daughters, they created an ideal world in which if you behaved well and responsibly then everything would fall into place. Of course, the truth is radically different.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of perfectionism by only seeing it as extreme behaviour—like constantly redoing a task that is already accomplished in order to ‘get it right’. Yet if we look closely, many of us are afraid of making mistakes, of being judged by others, of showing our true selves. Why do we do this? Because we want to appear in control, at the top of our game, and worthy of love. For me, it was such a relief to realize that perfection is an unattainable goal and trying to pursue it is like drinking salt water—the more you go for it, the more miserable you feel. Once I began to meditate it became clear that life is a practice and that means getting it wrong and making mis-steps but that is fine. It’s all part of the journey and the learning.
How does meditation help?
When we meditate our minds settle and calm down. This makes it much easier to see clearly what is going on with us and our world because a lot of the usual interference is not there. Meditation is about learning to be present and aware without judgement and wanting things to be different. This helps us to cope with the fear of what might happen in the future, and to let go of hurt that has happened in the past—our attention is more focused on what is actually happening in the moment. These moments change constantly, so it’s easier to connect with the idea process of life—its messiness and its surprises. The idea of control is exposed as hollow-how can you control a continuous river of experience?
In meditation we get to see ourselves close up—the torrent of thoughts and emotions that pass through our minds constantly. It is a process of coming to know yourself, to understand how your mind works and as you do that it seems less scary to allow yourself to be seen for who you are. You have had first-hand experience of your own imperfections and realized that it is fine. There is less reason to defend ourselves and to hide away. Yet at the same time, we connect with our soft spot—that place at our core where we can simply be with all our vulnerability, love and courage.
Brené Brown talks about perfectionism as a twenty ton shield that we think will protect us from being hurt but actually prevents us from being seen. Meditation helps us to remove the shield and helps us develop the courage to be vulnerable. If we can be vulnerable to our own pain and anxiety we have a chance of working with it, of moving through it. If we hide it away and pretend it’s not there it just blocks us.
Remember avoiding the traps of perfectionism is a process
One of the most insidious traps of perfectionism is when we apply it to the very means we are trying to use to help us avoid them. Often people that I talk to about learning meditation set themselves incredibly high goals, which inevitably they can’t keep up. This makes them feel discouraged and worries them that they are not doing it properly—that they are the only people who find meditation challenging. Sometimes this can even mean that they stop trying and feel meditation is not for them. This is such a pity and absolutely not necessary. The wonderful thing about meditation is that there is not such thing as a bad meditation and there are no standards to live up to. It is simply a process of coming to know your own mind, to make friends with yourself as you are and share that knowledge with courage and confidence.
If my young Social Worker had been taught to be with herself in this way, she might have had more of a sense of humour about the inadequacy of the stable’s facilities for child birth. She might even have been able to see the main point in the story—that something exceptional and magical was happening that was much more important than the irregularities that occupied her.
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