The Practice of Perfectionism
- The status quo, dominant culture of our society was not built to and cannot bring about liberation and justice for all people.
- What we practice with our lives — our habits and actions — often reinforces that status quo culture, even when we don’t mean for it to.
- Our opportunity is to become more conscious about what we’re practicing and make choices about how to practice in more liberatory, disruptively self-compassionate ways.
- Creating collective liberation — out in the world, for all people — starts with, and in fact depends on, our own inner liberation.
That is the heart work we’re doing here.
Published: January 22, 2018
The Roots of Perfectionism
by laura brewer
“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” Brené Brown
I personally learned perfectionism as a kid, without having any idea I was becoming the perfect perfectionist. I knew I was gay when I was very young — by the age of 7. I also lived in a conservative and religious family and area of the South (and have the boots and drawl to show for it). I prayed every night of my life from the age of 7 until I turned 18 for Jesus to turn me straight. Each night, I’d hope for the miracle; each morning, the disappointment, fear, and shame ensued. And so my practice of perfectionism began as it does for so many of us: as a coping mechanism. If I could just be good enough at enough things — if I could do enough and do it well enough — perhaps I would earn forgiveness. Perhaps others would be willing to overlook this unlovable thing about me (this is my 7-year-old self talking). Perhaps I would BE enough. So every day I practiced, without knowing I was practicing anything at all.
At some point, you — like me — probably learned perfectionism as a coping mechanism for something. You’ve practiced it like a sport, but without knowing it. Your “drive for personal excellence” probably saved your life at some point — it gave you a sense of control where you otherwise felt powerless. Where you otherwise lacked hope. It yielded a sense of achievement. Over time, it becomes an addiction — a way of BEing, with yourself and around others. We become so very practiced at perfectionist tendencies that it becomes automatic and habitual. We forget there’s choice. We forget there are alternate ways to inspire ourselves to achieve and pursue ambitious dreams that are rooted in healthy self-compassion instead of self-flagellation and people pleasing. We lose sight of our own internal strength and instead become focused on what others will think, or say, or believe about us. We photoshop our lives, which is crushing for our spirits and authenticity and sense of self. The truth we’re going to confront together is that perfectionism is not a kind bedfellow. It’s manipulative. To you. And others. It’s cruel. To you. And others. It’s obsessed with control, and it wields power over everything in its path. It is a form of emotional violence. To you and others. Anne Lamott serves it up straight: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
Perfectionism ranges from discreet, occasional behaviors to an all-consuming way of BEing, but the thread is the same: the primary focus is the how of how something gets done. And the how must be perfect, otherwise … doom. Otherwise imminent failure. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing at all. Otherwise, our identity, our security, or our value might crumble. So we fixate. We micromanage our children as they complete tasks (“no honey, the towels are folded this way”); we clean up what our partners have already cleaned once they leave the kitchen because they didn’t do it the right way. We don’t trust our colleagues to complete something with the excellence or integrity that we know we would bring to the task. We set impossible goals and standards for ourselves — and others. We criticize ourselves, and others. We live in fear of the perception of failure because failure would shatter what we want to believe about who we are — and so we struggle with mistakes, with feedback, with loss, with letting go, with asking for help. And we make things absolute. We procrastinate. We worry. We get depressed and anxious. We hustle for control. We do all we can do to appear strong; in control; together; composed; prepared and … perfect.
Beyond the tendencies, what exactly is perfectionism? Perfectionism is the drive to do enough — and do it excellently enough — so that one day you might believe that you are enough. That, my friends, is a fatal sentence. There’s no coming out of that one alive, or with your identity intact. If your worth is linked to what you do and specifically to how well you do it, you will question your worth until your last breath. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I personally have no interest in you coming out of all of this with your identity intact. At least not the way you know it now because the way you know it now is conditional. Your capacity for self-love and self-compassion and therefore love and compassion for others is conditional. And my aim is to blow that motherf*cker up.
We can all see already that the perfectionist is doomed. We all know there’s no real perfect. It’s like watching a scary movie when you know the character is in for it— the suspenseful music builds as the character opens the basement door and begins descending the dark staircase, and the camera reveals a shadow against the wall of the murderer wielding his weapon. All the signs tell us what we already know: this character will not be spared. Perfectionism is always at the bottom of the dark staircase. It’s already taken you out and you haven’t even opened the basement door yet.
Since my work is primarily with folk who live and work in social change and justice, I’ll also note this: if your goal is love and liberation, perfectionism is — again — a fatal sentence. And. You have a choice to practice something else. Making a different choice, though, requires that you first choose to see — deeply — what you’re practicing when you operate in ways that buy stock in perfectionism. As the revolutionary James Baldwin said: “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of what you don’t see.” Let’s examine what lies beneath the practice of perfectionism.
The Practice of Perfectionism
“In the end, perfection is just a concept — an impossibility we use to torture ourselves and that contradicts nature.” Guillermo del Toro
Ultimately, perfectionism is a standard of assessment (of yourself or others) against a typically invisible, subjective bar of “excellence” that’s treated as absolute. What makes it so toxic is that perfectionism doesn’t just evaluate performance — it measures worth based on productivity, accomplishment, and the ability to please others or make them comfortable. In addition to characteristics like these and costs like these and societal implications like this, we need to take an even deeper look into what we are practicing in our perfectionist tendencies without likely realizing it. When we attempt to do enough so we can BE enough — or hold others to that unstated expectation — we are really practicing some of this:
- Control — not only control over how things are done or to what level of perceived excellence, but ultimate control. We are seeking power over. Power over our self (“Messing this up is not an option” is a sort of threat to your psyche, a warning that there will be consequences.). Power over others (“this is the right way to complete that document”). Power over others’ perspectives (“if I do well enough in this presentation, I will convince them that I am x, y, z.”). Power over other’s value and worth (the drive to compare and contrast, or micromanage others’ behaviors so that they do something “right” involves a connotation that they are wrong, or less, or other.) Perfectionism often involves a subtle power hoarding which perfectionists use to judge their personal worth and the worth of others. Simply stated: perfectionists need control. Need to feel in control, rather. Remember, all this likely stems from a tender place in your life — a time you felt out of control, and learning to excel brought you the feeling of stability, comfort, safety. It brought you the perception of control when there was none. And so now you are a master at recreating that sense of control. To lack it is to feel — to be — incomplete. And. Control is power. What you are most seeking is power within — but in time, practicing control over and over (and seeing benefits from it) often gets warps into a quest for control and power as an output. The longing for power within, when practiced unconsciously and from woundedness, becomes a need for power over.
- Defensiveness — when you are striving to prove something (your excellence, and ultimately your worth), you are protecting a fortress. You are defending your territory. It is not a place of reception or openness or vulnerability. It’s a declaration of war, should the castle walls be breached.
- Emotional violence — primarily to yourself, and also perhaps to others. Think for a moment of the sentences in your head that you use to dictate your actions — that you use to drive your motivation. Are they loving? Do they accept you unequivocally? Do they use threats? Do they call you names? Do they tell you that you are something less than whole if you make a mistake? – If you experience public failure? I know what my sentences are, and they are cruel — they’re bloodthirsty. They care about the outcome and not about my spiritual, mental, or emotional well-being. Here’s the thing. You can drive yourself toward excellence without those toxic voices. You can be kind to yourself and ambitious about your growth and development. But because you learned perfectionism likely as a tool of survival (emotional or otherwise), there was a sense of urgency about your situation. Over time, that sense of urgency was no longer necessary — your survival was no longer at stake. But it had become learned — it had become a part of the technique for how you moved forward. Over time, when there’s no real survival at stake, you have to learn sterner and sterner ways of talking to yourself to convince yourself that imminent action is necessary. It’s a slippery and easy slope, from urgency to cruelty. Bottom line, when we love ourselves — when we know and accept who we are — we do not feel the need to judge ourselves or to judge others. We don’t feel the need to motivate with a cattle prod. Judgment, absolutism, criticism — they are non-acceptance. They are weaponized. They use fear to threaten harm and call it “motivation.” And this is a sort of violent energy that we aim at ourselves and others.
- Conditional Acceptance — if there is something you or someone else must do in order to BE enough — to be acceptable, to meet the bar — you are practicing conditional love and acceptance. You are linking human worth to production and a subjective bar of excellence (your own, most of all). Is that where you want to derive your worth? Do you believe other’s innate value comes from meeting a subjective bar of performance and output? Do you believe they are worthy or less worthy of love or acceptance based on performance? I’m guessing no. But as a perfectionist, that is likely a part of what you’re practicing — even if it’s not what you believe.
- Disconnection and Separation — perfectionism involves a hidden compare/contrast system to determine worth and value. When we benchmark our actions against the actions of others in order to determine our own or their worth, we are disconnecting from a sense of shared wholeness and humanity. We are inserting rank and hierarchy (you are more/less X than I. I am more/less Y than you). Rank only has one need, which is to classify — which implies separateness. When we practice perfectionism, we are practicing classifying ourselves or others as meeting a bar or not meeting a bar. We no longer believe we are the same, that we are whole — rather, we believe someone is or must be better. In that moment, we break from a value of shared humanity, connection, and oneness. Instead, we are practicing othering and in order to other myself or someone else, I must disconnect from a belief or value of our innate equality, our innate wholeness.
- Shame — it’s not a stretch to see how shame comes along for the ride when we are using emotional violence or conditional love or defensiveness as a way of evaluating self-worth, or even simply attempting to motivate ourselves or others to take action. While it’s not our intention, holding an invisible bar of excellence or believing in a right/wrong way to do something is an invocation of shame. Shame exists to make us question our worthiness — so does perfectionism. And perfectionism uses the fear of shame as its motivator of choice.
- Avoidance — of feeling feelings, of taking action. It looks different for each perfectionist, but ultimately we are each working to avoid feeling — or BEing — something by obsessing with excellence, with the “right” way.
- Fear — when we obsess with excellence and the “right” way, we practice avoidance (of mistakes; of feelings; or judgment) because we are in fear. As one of my teachers, Brooke Castillo says: “Perfectionists are scared people.” What would truly devastate you, if it were true about you? How does perfectionism allow you to avoid being that thing? What fears does your perfectionism allow you to avoid?
This list above is not a condemnation. You’re not a bad person. And, you may not have had any idea that these root behaviors are what’s really underneath perfectionist tendencies. Take a pause here and catch your breath. Remember: we’re waking up. Individual and collective liberation requires eyes wide open. No holds barred.
Bottom line here: each flavor of perfectionism is unique. The way your perfectionism manifests is different from the way mine manifests. We may not be practicing all the behaviors above, but when we strip each of our perfectionisms to their essence, we will surely find some if not all of the practices above. And since none of us is a bad person, we need to understand — compassionately — why we demonstrate these behaviors, even when we don’t mean to demonstrate them. Even when some of the behaviors are antithetical to what we believe and value. Why would we practice something we don’t want to practice?
How We Benefit from The Practice of Perfectionism
“Awareness is knowing something exists, critical awareness is knowing why it exists, how it works, how our society is impacted by it and who benefits from it.” Brené Brown
As a coach, I know a hard truth: we never do/think/feel anything that doesn’t somehow benefit us. Period. This is applicable to perfectionism. We demonstrate the behaviors above because at some level: we benefit. We gain. They serve us. Not in terms of getting better grades or promotions — deeper than that. In terms of what we get to avoid, what we get to feel, what we get to believe, what lies we get to tell ourselves… Practicing perfectionism — no matter how crappy it makes you feel; no matter how isolating the negative self-talk — benefits us.
Friendly reminder: nearly all of us formed perfectionistic tendencies at a young age and as a coping mechanism. We needed a way to feel safe — to feel in control. We learned that we had little control over the situations in our lives, but we often had control over our own actions. We learned that if we micromanaged our actions and efforts, we felt more safe and more in control. So first and foremost: that is the fundamental benefit of practicing perfectionism (and all the other distinct behaviors that go along with it). We get to feel safe and in control. Note: we don’t actually get the safety. Just the fallacy of it — just the felt experience of it. And in a world that is often unsafe for so many people, it makes tons of sense that we would want to feel like we are in control of some part of our lives. Perfectionism scratches that itch. Perfectionism is a lot like sleeping with a stuffed animal (and I should know because I am a perfectionist-in-recovery and I sleep with a 33-year-old stuffed triceratops named Dino). We reach for it, pull it close to us, and even though nothing in our reality has shifted (we’re still in the dark; there are still scary noises beyond our walls; our pain is still there), things just feel a little better. Perfectionism is a stuffed animal — a phantom — a pill to take the edge off. Nothing more (but isn’t it amazing, PS, how much power we give it?).
Taking the pill — of practicing perfectionism over and over for many years — gives you many other “benefits” in addition to the perception of control and safety. Which of these is your emotional kryptonite? When we practice perfectionism (and the other subtle behaviors below its surface), we often get:
- To feel clear. When we create absolutes, right ways and wrong ways, binaries and dichotomies, all the sudden a very complex and ambiguous and grey world with multiple truths becomes absolute and crystal clear. When things look clear, they are easier to navigate. We save time and energy. And we get the gratification of saying, “at least I’m doing it the right / best / most absolute way.”
- A sense of self-assurance. If the world becomes a little more clear, and the paths become right or wrong, we choose the “right” way and get to feel proud of that choice, or certain about it. We get a pat on the back — at least from ourselves, and often from others. And who doesn’t need and want more assurance? When shit is hard and most of our confidence and compassion levels are low toward ourselves, this pill works and works fast. I can’t blame anyone for taking it.
- To avoid a whole host of shitty feelings. If you know you’re doing it the “right” way, think of all the typically yucky-feeling emotions that you don’t have to feel! Confusion. Doubt. Frustration. Insecurity. Impatience. Fear. Helplessness. Loneliness. Boredom. Inadequacy. Insignificance. And we get to avoid unnecessary emotional risk. Take a beat for a minute and re-read this list. And bring some compassion to yourself or those you know with perfectionistic tendencies. Nearly anyone looking for a way to feel safe, in control, self-assured – when faced with a technique for helping them avoid feeling all the things above – would say: yes please, more of that. And because we’re avoiding feeling some crappy feelings, we don’t look too deeply into the list of unpronounceable ingredients on our favorite snack. We prefer not to know what we’re actually ingesting. We prefer not to see the internal damage that consuming that stuff – butylated hydroxyanisole, monosodium glutamate, high fructose corn syrup, emotional violence, shame, defensiveness – creates. So, bonus: we get to avoid that too!
- To work hard. This at first might seem counter-intuitive since hard work is not always fun. But it is often rewarding. And many of us living in this country saw hard work get a lot of emotional accolade and validation in our families. For some of us, our families rewarded hard academic work; for some, hard manual work; for others, hard work was a family legacy handed down over generations (“your grandfather toiled his whole life so we could come to this country…”). So, even if there’s some guilt associated with it, hard work often makes us feel good. It often gives us a sense of worth. It often provides a sense of living into and up to our families’ expectations. There are a lot of reasons hard work feels good. And hard work is something perfectionists know a lot about. Perfectionism is nothing if not hard work. In its most masquerading and benign terms, it is the endless, grueling pursuit of excellence. That shit is hard work.
- To believe it’s not our fault / to make it someone else’s fault. A natural byproduct of practicing perfectionism is that those of us who practice it tend to struggle with criticism, mistakes, failure, and the perception of wrongness. If we are always “working hard,” and “doing our best,” “wanting to make it excellent,” and “trying to do it right,” it makes failure seem far away, or feel like it’s not an option. And if we have a partner or employees or children or family, one benefit we get from perfectionism is that when something goes wrong, it almost always seems to us as if it cannot be our fault. If we do it the best, the mistake must be someone else’s. While we may experience disappointment over and over and over again as perfectionists because no one can ever live up to our impossibly high and unspoken bar, disappointment means someone else let us down rather than the alternate possibility: that we let someone else — or ourselves — down. Perfectionism makes us feel right, which — whether we like it or not — means that others are wrong. What a relief.
Everything on this list — in a complicated world with a great many challenges — can be a benefit to feel and experience. So let’s not judge ourselves too harshly. We practice perfectionism (and all the baggage that comes along with it) because it serves us. It is helpful to feel right, safe, clear, hard-working, benevolent, confident, and self-assured. And it is helpful to NOT feel all the things we get to avoid feeling through our practice of perfectionism. And. The real benefit is getting to believe the Great Myth: that somehow — in this life that spins 1040 miles per hour tilted in space on a tiny ball in an infinitely large galaxy — we are safe. We have control, and everything will be just fine.
Perfectionism’s Relationship with Racial Equity, Justice, and Liberation
“Perfection is a faux. It’s a mask carved by our own poor esteem to hide who we really are and make others see what really isn’t us.” Chinonye J. Chidolue
If you know me or have visited Do The Heart Work, you know that my work is ultimately about healing and liberation. I want all of us to have power within; to have the freedom to be all of our multifaceted, distinct pieces and therefore to get to feel and BE whole; to be free from and of white supremacy culture; to experience and have justice and equal access and equal agency. The way I personally do this work in the world is to examine — for myself, hoping that it might also be of benefit to others — what I am practicing, and to scrutinize whether that practice is ultimately liberatory for myself and others. So when I look at perfectionism as a practice — at the underlying values, beliefs, and behaviors I am practicing as a system, beneath the label of “perfectionism”— I ask myself: to what extent is this liberatory? To what extent will this contribute to justice and liberation? To what extent does it perpetuate aspects of dominant, oppressive culture?
It is never a yes or no answer. Life is not that simple, and neither is liberation. The point of this section is to bravely ask those questions and to do so without the invocation of shame (which is not a liberatory practice). To do so with compassionate curiosity. So I invite you, alongside me, to dare to look inside the box, carefully and gently take out what you find, spin it around, and see what insight it has to offer.
To what extent will, or can, perfectionism contribute to justice and liberation? To what extent does it resist and counteract systems of oppression? Here’s what comes to me:
- Solidarity and perfectionism are incongruent. They are oil and water. A part of what perfectionism seeks to protect against is failure, mistakes, the perception of wrongness, and criticism. To aspire to behave as an “ally” — to ally as a verb and take action in solidarity or as a co-conspirator with any group of marginalized others — requires, as a baseline, the ability to receive feedback and to operate from an “I don’t / can’t know (what this is like for others)” mind. Perfectionism makes practicing that stance incredibly difficult. Not impossible — but incredibly difficult. There is no such thing as a perfect ally. Imperfection is the baseline and the constant of what it means to attempt to behave and take action in solidarity with an oppressed group of people when you have not lived their history or experience, and when you are not incaged in the same way by the same systems of oppressions. If what you are practicing in your identity or behaviors includes shame, defensiveness, or fear of failure (as perfectionism does), you might avoid the risky vulnerability — possibly even the deep inner work — that comes with learning to see how you’ve absorbed racism, or patriarchy, or cis-gendered heteronormativity, or classism, or any ism. You might fear taking bold, disruptive action to interrupt injustice. You might expect others to tell you HOW to do it — how to be the “right” kind of ally. Those behaviors don’t make you a bad person or forever incapable of operating in solidarity with and for justice. But as practices, they are not promoters of liberation. And in some cases (like expecting marginalized people to teach you HOW to do something — to provide the emotional, spiritual, cultural, and even physical labor), they are promoters of oppression.
- Fear and control-based behaviors and motivations are more closely connected to oppression than liberation. While we don’t mean to practice defensiveness, fear-mongering, and power over when we demonstrate perfectionism, that is often a part of our motivations or behaviors when we demonstrate perfectionistic tendencies. And when we look at the world’s history, we see that the desire and need for control and for power over tend to be more associated with tyranny, oppression, appropriation, and colonialism. When we are steeped in fear — when we need control — we might be prone to:
- Micromanage how people give us feedback or call us in/out to be more effective allies and stewards of justice. (Micromanaging is a form of power over, and power over is a form of separation and othering. Those dynamics are more associated with oppression than liberation.)
- Get defensive when given the gift of feedback.
- Police the tone and words with which marginalized people express their truths or share feedback.
- Regarding white supremacy… For me, I see that perfectionism solidifies a bar of excellence defined by whiteness and that serves, reinforces, and further strengthens white comfort, white norms, and therefore white supremacy. This is partly because I’m white (which means my world is defined by my racialization and socialization as white), but also because I’m an American which is to be steeped in racism and white supremacy culture. (If that phrase is new to you, or your only association of it involves men in white hoods, it’s important to pause here and read this resource.) I don’t believe that an invisible bar of excellence based on any standard (objective or subjective, but I personally believe everything is subjective even in its fanciest coat of objective paint) is liberatory in nature. Particularly when it’s used as a measuring rod of someone’s worth/value, and particularly when it’s used as a crop with which we threaten or hurt ourselves and others to do more, be more, be better. Those beliefs are true for me outside the context and system of white supremacy. To have this sort of practice and philosophy inside the system of white supremacy, whiteness, and white supremacy culture as we do in America…well, I personally cannot see a path to liberation of our individual selves and our collective wholeness through that practice and in that context. Additionally, researchers Okun and Jones have also articulated that perfectionism, itself, is an attribute of white supremacy culture. Remember: this is not a statement that perfectionism is bad or wrong, inherently. It’s a statement that white people often use perfectionism culturally and individually to (even if not intentionally) make whiteness (values, ideology, history, norms, and bodies associated with whiteness) what is supreme — what is best, better, “normal,” unquestionable, valuable, and worthwhile.
Systems of liberation are not built on control, defensiveness, shame, fear, and emotional violence. This is not to say that perfectionists are oppressors or racists or white supremacists or [insert any over simplified label meant to make us feel more absolute about all of this]. But it is to offer that if you have perfectionist tendencies and you aspire to be a contributor to collective justice and individual liberation, some of your behaviors are likely in tension with your aspirations. The behaviors inherent in perfectionism and the behaviors associated with liberation are distinct and often in opposition to each other. Perfectionism requires a cage; liberation requires that walls be torn down. And so: some of your behaviors will likely need to be (re)questioned and (re)adjusted in order to enable greater alignment between your beliefs and your practice.
Interrupting Perfectionism: The Practice of Healing & Compassion
“I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more that a deep existential angst the says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert
I believe one of the best training grounds for dismantling injustice out in the world is to learn to dismantle behaviors and systems of injustice we’ve created inside our own heads and hearts. Put in a more liberatory way: if we aspire to be forces of something out in the world, we must learn to create those thriving conditions inside ourselves. Then, the actions we take to build whatever we aspire for the world to have more of can and will be (and can only exist as) a direct extension of that healthy, thriving condition inside ourselves.
So how do we do this? Let’s say we have perfectionist tendencies, and we’ve scrutinized the actions and behaviors we’re practicing underneath the label of “perfectionism” and we see some stuff we want to change because it’s incongruent with our beliefs and aspirations … now what?
First (and really — ongoing, all the time, forever): your primary task is to learn to re-relate to your perfectionism, not to get rid of it. Right now, you likely relate to your perfection in an unconscious way (you didn’t know what you were really practicing), or a shame-based way (you feel crappy about and judge yourself for being a perfectionist), or a fear-based way (you’re afraid of what you are/will be/won’t be without your perfectionist tendencies, and so you keep them out of fear), etc. Your work is to learn to see, understand, and shift your relationship with perfectionism with and through compassion. If you’re using oppressive habits to beat/stamp out/get rid of perfectionism, you’re really just strengthening the forcefield of oppression in the world (and probably trying to use perfectionism to get rid of your perfectionism, which doesn’t work). Perfectionism is a part of you — as such, there’s no “getting rid” of it. However, you’ll find you won’t need these pieces of you so much as you do the inner work to re-relate to your perfectionism more consciously and as you start to practice and be in choice as to whether you want to continue practicing what you’re practicing and how you’re practicing it.
A few suggestions for that work:
- Take a look at what you’re practicing: clearly, and with compassion. Re-read this article. Ask friends and co-workers and family for feedback. In what ways do you operate as a perfectionist? What are the pain points they feel, if applicable, from your behaviors? What do they notice is true about/for you, when you’re operating with perfection. If you strip your perfectionism down into motivating behaviors, what are you really practicing? List the behaviors. List the feedback. If an alien landed on earth and observed your behaviors when you’re in a perfectionistic state of being, what would they matter-of-factory observe you doing?
- Reflect: are those behaviors things you want to be practicing? Why/why not? There’s no right or wrong answer (that’s perfectionistic thinking). Some things you may choose to keep; some things you may choose to let go; some things you may recalibrate. But dare to have a frank conversation with yourself: to what extent are your behaviors in alignment with your values, beliefs, and with liberation?
- Reflect: how/why do I benefit from how I’m currently doing things? Again: compassion, not judgment. The goal here is to deeply, empathetically understand. Only when we understand something fully and intimately can we change it (if we even want to change it). All the ways in which you benefit from your behaviors create an internal system. In order for a system to change, it must be brought into the light. The first few suggestions for action will help you see the components of your system; this stage will help you understand why you’ve built the system and what you get from it. Both parts are necessary for systems-level change.
- Answer: what do I want to practice instead? And what might that look like, given who I am, my identity, my history, my values, my work, etc? This is an exhilarating stage — one of creation, of possibility. Again, there is no right or wrong. Keep the question of “to what extent is this liberatory?” close by as you build this out. What would/could it look like, to still pursue excellence and do your very best in a way that is more liberatory? How else could you practice wanting to be great at what you do, or wanting others to be great at what they do?
- Practice. There’s a reason I’ve used that word about 8,426 times in this article. Practice the new vision and the new behaviors you want to learn. You will trip up (which is great practice at chipping away at perfectionism); you will start over; you will get frustrated; you will experience joy. It’s all a part of the ride. But there is no shortcut. You have to practice. The more you practice your re-aligned behaviors, the easier and more natural they will become.
- Resist measuring and evaluating your worth. And the worth of others. This too is a practice. You are inherently worthy. You don’t need to do anything to become so. Neither do others. It’s one thing to believe this and it’s another to practice it — go through all the steps above and do the inner work you need to do in order to practice BEing a stand for the intrinsic worth of yourself and others.
“Trying to be more than human one becomes less.” Marty Rubin
I honor the little you — the you that you were when you first learned that obsessing with the how and doing it well enough would earn you safety, control, and worthiness. That little you got you through some tough shit. And: the older, wiser you has got this now. And the older, wiser you can be a total badass without the self-flagellation and oppressive tendencies. But the only way that happens is through: deep, continual inner exploration; building a regular, conscious practice of new beliefs, worldviews, and ways of BEing; asking folks who love you (and who have perhaps experienced some hurt as a result of the shape your perfectionism has taken in the relationship) for grace and accountability. It’s not enough to read this and resonate. You’ve gotta have fierce, ruthless courage to dig in. You’ve gotta take this work to the dojo every damn day.
Now: go practice the shit out of this stuff. And mess up as often as you possibly can. Your inner perfectionist will hate it. Your soul will thank you. And the world might, too.