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Towards a new sense of self and the end of the road for perfectionism

For many of us, during these recent times there is a need to be focussed on high performance standards, be it at work, in our domestic relationships, or in the pursuit of our exercise routines and even leisure. The need for flawlessness seems to be set at an even higher bar than before the pandemic, this in spite of the obvious extra challenges these times now bring for us.

What is it like to experience perfectionism?

There are different aspects to perfectionism including having an internal critical voice, perhaps one resonating with childhood demands, which seems to continually ask for excellence or something closely approaching that, the same voice that scolds us when we fall short in this respect. The drive towards perfectionism and the fear of imperfection then, are two sides of the same coin. These often produce a loss of the sense of being alive, a deadening down where optimism can be thin on the ground.   Perfectionism can also mean a predominant concern with imagined, or actual, critical evaluations of others. Others around us may experience perfectionism as controlling and often with difficulties to be present in the here and now.  However, because of the habitual nature of perfectionist striving it can be very difficult to recognise that it is anything other than a ‘necessary’ part of the normal challenges of everyday existence.

The issue with perfectionism is that it can feel a bit like a dog chasing its own tail. Chasing the goal to be perfect can resemble the horse that never actually catches up with the carrot dangled in front of it. So too when we finally get to examine what has been achieved at considerable cost, only for us to experience our attention being disproportionately drawn to the minor shortcomings instead of the overall success. Perfectionism can seem relentless. Even when we find ourselves achieving something that does pass muster, before we can fully acknowledge our achievement and applaud ourselves for getting there, this sense of accomplishment can swiftly vanish once we become aware of the shadow of the next pressing commitment which then begins to cloud our spot in the sun.

Most of us live in a world where the demands for perfectionism, also echoed by the advertising industry, are difficult to escape. Analytics, optics, metrics are just some examples of the targets and outcomes culture that has long since left the confines of the workplace, and can be seen to dominate many other aspects of life as well. Many of us with a perfectionist way of being may be naturally inclined to match ourselves with performance contexts which are known to be very exacting and have a normalised culture of continuous high demand. In such a culture high rates of burnout and unsustainable working practice are not uncommon.

Procrastination and perfectionism

Often times, it may be that our fear of imperfection is so strong that we find ourselves horribly trapped in an experience of stalling. Of not being able to start at all, not being able to mobilise ourselves for fear of falling short of our own unobtainable standards. By avoiding starting we side-step and are spared the wrath of our inner critic commenting that the outcome was below expectations. This buys us some time in an otherwise unrelenting marathon of needing to be ‘up to the mark’. In the long run however, there is no winning and this stuckness almost always leads us to beat ourselves up mentally for being ‘rubbish’ at deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise).

Adopting a perfectionist stance can also rob us of our creative potential. I for one, have found that the creative aspects of my thinking often require me to be away from outcome-oriented environments (desk, etc.). I tend to have my best creative thoughts when away somewhere. Invariably somewhere in nature where I can experience more of full sensory connection. I find that there it is simply easier to be more free from the anxiety of imperfection, to be more playful, more imaginative with thoughts. It may sound paradoxical but by the compulsive striving for excellence, we seem to create circumstances which are actually less likely to bring it about.

How can I experience being different?

What can you do when you find yourself struggling with trying to accommodate this inner naming and shaming, this habitual addictive pattern around flawlessness striving?  We can learn to empower ourselves to disrupt this game we play with ourselves. The pathway to this involves a number of small steps, all of which have in common listening to the invitation for self-compassion.

The first step is about allowing ourselves to become aware of the kind of perfectionist game we are playing here. After this we can invite ourselves to try to identify what makes the game particular to us and personalise it further by giving this game a name tag to recall this form of self-judging by. Something that seems appropriate and belonging to you. During the next step we allow ourselves to feel how we experience this fear of imperfection living in our body. Does it manifest itself as an ache, a pain, a clenched or stifling feeling? Can we locate it in specific body parts? The more we engage with this last step the more likely it is that we can welcome in self-compassion and kindness and guide our curiosity of how this compulsion has come to take up so much energy, and at such considerable cost, in our life.

In this process we aim to enlarge the sense of who we are, creating a new relationship with the here and now without the need to be so future-directed. We pay witness to the person beyond the ‘bad’ who often failed at being excellent enough, and to the procrastinator. And instead we are able to call out the nature of the game we are so attracted to, inviting better choice making. We can be curious and trust our other assets and see beyond this narrow landscape that seemed to largely want to define us.

Introducing self-kindness to the distress of perfectionist striving is not a kind of wishy-washy ‘false sense of reality’, instead the gentle use of positive self-appraisal can be a critical survival tool allowing for a new self-connection in which we become to see our world not just in the absolutes of failure or victory but instead a as a rich patchwork of in-betweens. Here better and healthier choice making can arise where ‘mistakes’ are valued for their contribution to learning and creative risk-taking. In the same way the ‘good-enough’ principle in parenting challenges the need for ‘mistake-free parenting’ and replacing this with a healthier way of being where rupture followed by repair is valued for the insight and learning it brings about.

The notion here is not that aiming for excellence is a bad thing per se. Spinelli makes a useful distinction between ‘the need or must’ to achieve perfection and the ‘want’ to do so. Wanting to achieve something comes with the ability to forgive ourselves (and appreciating the learning) from less than perfect outcomes. In needing to achieve something, there is an absence of self-kindness.

Applying effective self-care to an anxiety of imperfection invites a degree of awareness and intention.  We might notice for example the similarities in feeling the distressing effects of striving for perfection when we experience the work environment as triggering thoughts around targets and outcomes with similar feelings we may have from our monitoring and recording data when we are out exercising with the aim of providing a counterpoint to the pressures of work.

What can Counselling offer in challenging the fear of imperfection?

Because perfectionism is often well hidden to the self, counselling can play a part in revealing new meaning here in terms of your relationship to performance and productivity, your relationship to others and to self. Counselling can also help bring in to view what you might be experiencing as bodily complaints that frequently accompany the striving for excellence or the fear of imperfection, and help address the question of ‘how could I experience myself if I was not living with the continual anxiety to be perfect?’

 

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Lockdown

Lockdown has changed our world, and it has changed us. Whatever we were doing and whoever we were with when Boris Johnson announced the locking down of the British nation, we are all different now. Changed and uncertain or apprehensive of what lies ahead. Three months on, Lockdown means different things for different people.

For the lucky ones, living in a close family with loved ones living nearby, maybe this time has been one of intimacy, and perhaps relaxation from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Tending gardens, listening to birds, and relishing the silence and peace of nature, not being constantly drowned out by the pace and traffic of our busy schedules. But even for the lucky few, relationships can become strained by the limitations of not being able to come and go. Parents starting to worry about children going back to school and about children not going back to school.

Home schooling is never an easy fit with mothering, and what if the mother works as so many do. Mothers in particular often times carrying the load of lockdown for the family, juggling working from home, teaching their children, cooking the meals. Frequently feeling they cannot do anything well enough as the demands on their time prove so challenging. And besides, children bristle at the imposed role-swap of  their parents invading their formerly separate school lives  and proclaim, at the point the mother is at her most exhausted, ‘you don’t know that, and anyway you are not teaching me anything’. Who wouldn’t give up and who is to say that maybe giving up and just enjoying being with your child becomes the best thing.

What of the parent who has been furloughed or is facing redundancy, and is looking at a future where providing for the family is looking insecure, or is being asked to go back to work, in circumstances that feel risky and unsafe, and put the common good before that of their family. The breadwinner who can’t share their anxiety as that isn’t something they are used to, or are comfortable with. Or the man who feels redundant in himself not just from his job, with no purpose to identify with and strive for? Or what of the couple who have reached the end of the road in their relationship and where do they go, or who can they really talk to? Think of losing a loved one to Corona Virus and not being able to go with them into hospital or say goodbye in person, or even be able to go to their funeral? How do you feel about your grandparent being in a care home, perhaps not being able to visit and so worried that the isolation they might be feeling is only chased away by the fiercer worry that they might get sick.

Or just how do you cope if you are in Lockdown on your own? Sartre said ‘hell was other people’. But it can feel like hell not to be able to reach out and touch or talk to another person for days at a time. In Lockdown we have never needed people more and never missed the human ability to be physically in touch quite so intensely. Whether you are depressed, anxious, grieving, worried about your kids, or struggling in relationships, normal ambivalence can reach new heights.

Lockdown at the moment unlocks all our past personal lockdowns, or traumas in new and intense ways. Whenever we have been frightened, or bereaved, or in conflict, alone, bullied, abandoned; now in Lockdown whatever has traumatised us in the past, can come back in this confined space and threaten once again. Not having a garden, or an income, or close friends and family nearby can’t be immediately sorted by coming to therapy. But being really listened to can be a start in addressing emotional fears and needs.

Therapy and counselling isn’t really a talking cure, but its a listening cure. When we are really listened to, we start to listen to ourselves and that is how new experience can be opened up. It is amazing what we can hear when we really listen, and when we are listened to. So much anxiety and shame are the result when we lockdown on what we feel, when we allow past and present events to alienate us from being alive and open to life and what other people can offer us. Lockdown in an age of coronavirus doesn’t have to be a lockdown of our feelings, our connection and our love for other people. Sometimes we have to be really listened to, in order to understand how we can change our lives and ourselves. Being listened to and being able to listen to ourselves enables the healing of past lockdowns.

And so we begin to free ourselves of the psychological burdens that are overwhelming us in this very physical Lockdown that has had so many diverse effects on or lives. Feelings and fears have to be shared to be really experienced and borne. And when we can bear them the future opens up, in ways that even the coronavirus can’t control or lock us away from. Whatever your anxieties, your relationship problems, the people who you have lost, or those who have hurt you; whatever your emotional pain, having a conversation about the really important things in your life with someone who is trained to listen and reframe, can help.  Freeing ourselves from the emotional lockdowns of our past and private lives, opening our minds can allow us new possibilities in connection with others that will endure beyond the confined physical spaces of our current public health crisis.