Editor’s Note: This is a contribution by Vijayalakshmi Harish
“I have done my best. That is all the philosophy of living one needs.” ~Lin-yutang
Perfectionism—the word brings to mind images of order and organization, of effectiveness and efficiency. This is what society expects from a “perfectionist,” and this is what is projected as desirable and attainable. There is an aspirational value to being a “perfectionist.”
Many people believe that perfectionistic tendencies motivate people to do their best and achieve their goals.
However, I can vouch for the fact that it actually feels like being caught in a trap. There is a feeling of suffocation and dread at not being able to escape. The joy of living is sucked out leaving one feeling inadequate and incompetent all the time.
I don’t remember how or when I fell into the trap. All I know is that I have suffered the pain of trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect sister, the perfect friend, so on and so forth.
And I remember the exact moment when I realized I was trapped.
It was when I was fifteen and in the tenth grade. In India, the tenth grade examinations are considered extremely important. These are the examinations that would decide whether or not I got into a college of my choice.
I always did well academically, and needless to say there were expectations from those around me to perform well in these exams. I had to live up to these expectations—or so I thought.
That thought was enough to drive me into what was unarguably the darkest period of my life. As a teenager I was already dealing with issues of body image, being bullied, and trying to make friends. Added to this mix, my desire to excel academically pushed me over the edge.
I cried myself to sleep. I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to run away from home.
I rebelled against my parents. I magnified even the smallest of my mistakes and obsessed over imagined flaws in my personality. I simply wasn’t good enough.
I was constantly depressed and wouldn’t tell anyone why. This worried my parents, especially my mother. She took me to see a guru she trusted in the hope that maybe he could help me.
The guru, a kind and wise man, just asked me one question.
He said, “I don’t know what troubles you have and you need not tell me, but let me tell you that at your age life is relatively simple. Life is going to get more complicated and the roles you will have to play more demanding. If this is how you are now, how will you handle what is to come?”
That question opened the floodgates. I cried till I could cry no more—not through sadness, but because I had the realization that I had a problem and that only I could take charge and solve it.
I realized that I couldn’t go on beating myself up. It wouldn’t help me live my life fully and happily. I had to make a change and do it right away.
I started by voicing my concerns to my mother, who assured me that neither she nor my father would stop loving me if I didn’t do well in my exams. They loved me for who I am and not for what I did.
That in turn led to an exploration of who I was.
The more I got to know myself, my unique skills and talents, the more I could appreciate myself for who I was rather than looking outward for self-validation. I broke away from the expectations others had for me. I made my own rules.
Perfectionism is largely a function of living up to expectations, real or imagined. The key to overcoming it is to change those expectations.
To create my own realistic and achievable expectations—ones that allow me to experience the joy of achievement without the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy—I drew from my cultural background and knowledge of cognitive-behavioral therapies.
The methods that I use to overcome my perfectionistic tendencies are as below:
Focus on the action, not the results.
One thing that I have learned from experience is that focusing on results leads to needless anxiety and almost certainly guarantees failure. Focusing on the action helps us to give our best to it in a calm and peaceful manner.
In many ways this is similar to the concept of mindfulness. The key is to stay in the here and now and be attentive to the present moment. When we aren’t worrying about the future outcomes or past failures, we are automatically freed to give our best to the present task!
Change your language.
It was one of my college professors who pointed out to me that my language with regards to my mistakes was rather strong. I often used the word “failure” to describe even the smallest mistake.
The moment this was pointed out to me I made an attempt to change my language. Now I refer to my mistakes as “learning opportunities.” This reframing of the words in turn reframed the way I felt and behaved when I made an error. I am now more accepting of them.
I still feel bad, but not beat up. I am able to learn something from my mistakes and make sure that they do not recur. In this sense being more accepting of mistakes has increased my effectiveness.
This is just one example of how I’ve changed my language. Overall, I try to replace every negative word with a positive alternative.
As it is said, what you focus on expands. So when I focus on describing myself and my actions positively, it feeds back automatically into whatever I’m doing, bringing out the best in me in a non-stressful manner.
Enlist social support.
Escaping the perfectionism trap isn’t easy. I would often find myself obsessing over small details, worrying about how things will turn out, whether my work will be appreciated, and so on. Even now, after years of practice, I sometimes find myself slipping.
I don’t even realize when I am like this, which makes it impossible for me to take the necessary steps. Self-awareness is an essential precursor to self-control. To ensure that I know when I’m slipping, I have enlisted the support of trusted family members, friends, and co-workers.
These people who know me well let me know when they think I’m having difficulty letting go or when I seem to be thinking self-deprecatingly. Through external dialogue with them, I am able to refocus my internal dialogue.
There will always be expectations that others have from us. The difference between those caught in the trap of perfectionism and those who are not is the extent to which these expectations are internalized and prioritized.
The latter realize that even though others have expectations of us, hardly anyone expects perfection. Most often, others are willing to forgive us when we make a mistake. We just need to learn to be kind and forgiving to ourselves.
It is never too late to escape the perfectionism trap. Let us reclaim the joy of living while still giving our best to the world!
Photo by lupzdut
Vijayalakshmi Harish is a Learning & Development professional. She designs and facilitates programs on Emotional Intelligence and Anger Management. Her other interests are literature and mythology, from which she borrows in her learning programs. She is also a writer and poet. Some of her poetry can be viewed at http://hellopoetry.com/-vijayalakshmi-harish/.
Editor’s Note: This is a contribution by Nicholas Montemarano
“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” ~Buddha
I’d like you to meet someone. He’s me and he’s not me. What I mean is, he’s inside me—a part of me.
His story goes something like this: “I need to be the best at whatever I do, but no matter how hard I work, I will never be the best because the world is unfair.”
For most of my life he’s been carrying around this impossible task, and it has really weighed me down. He’s caused me a lot of pain and anxiety, and sometimes I’d like to get rid of him.
Rather, some other part of me wants to get rid of him.
Now I’d like you to meet that other part. He’s me and he’s not me.
His story goes like this: “Ambition causes us nothing but pain. We need to stop striving and devote ourselves entirely to a more spiritual path, even if it means giving up some of the things we’re passionate about.”
These two parts, both inside me, have had some knock-down, drag-out fights, let me tell you. It can get so heated that sometimes I decide it’s best to stay out of it.
And that’s part of the problem.
You see, we all have many parts inside us, and some have been with us most of our lives. There are two things we don’t want to do in our relationship with our parts, but which we tend to do: (1) let them take over; (2) exile them.
Our parts mean well—they believe that they’re helping us—but often they operate out of shame and fear. And so when we allow them to take over, they do more damage than good—despite their best intentions.
The part of me that operates through extreme ambition and competition really does believe that he’s trying to protect me from experiencing failure, disappointment, and shame. The part of me that operates through extreme spirituality—almost competitively so—is trying to protect me from the same things.
The spiritual part wants to get rid of the ambitious part, calling him an ego-driven narcissist. The ambitious part wants to get rid of the spiritual part, calling him an overbearing idealist. And neither wants me to write about this—they’re much too invested in how others see me.
They shout at each other and make their cases, asking me to choose one of them to be in charge of my life. When I become exhausted with their fighting and choose one over the other, the exiled part only gets louder and louder. Try to imagine them as two children having a battle of wills, asking their parent to choose between them.
What these parts don’t know is that they’re not protecting me—my true self, who doesn’t know shame—but other parts of me, who have their own stories.
As you can see, it can get pretty crowded inside you. But over time, you can get to know—and love—your most prominent parts. Here’s how.
1. Learn to recognize when your parts are trying to take over.
The warning signs are fear, anxiety, shame, extreme anger, and other strong feelings of unease. Rather than allowing these feelings to overwhelm you, or running away from them, try to see them as messages from one or more of your parts that are asking for your attention.
2. Listen to your parts.
What they want before all else is to have their stories heard by someone who will listen and understand. They may want to tell you—or they may be afraid to tell you—when they first showed up in your life and why. Your true self, who is compassionate, calm, and curious, is the ideal listener.
3. Mirror your parts and validate that their stories make perfect sense given their life experiences.
I might say to one of my parts, “I understand why you see life as a competition,” or I might say to another part, “It makes sense that you want to go live in a monastery and meditate all day.” There should be no buts, no reasons why the parts shouldn’t feel the way they do.
4. Show them compassion.
It’s almost always the case that our parts are suffering, and have been for a very long time. They’re often frustrated and exhausted and afraid. It goes a long way to say to them, “Wow, that must be hard to carry around that burden all the time.”
5. Thank them for trying to help you—even if their methods haven’t always been the best ones.
The last thing you want to do is scold a part for messing up. When we shame or exile our parts, especially our darker parts, they have a better chance of taking over our lives when we least expect them to.
6. Reassure them that you’re in charge and that you don’t need them to do their jobs anymore.
Try to remember that their impossible jobs—to be the best, to be spiritually perfect, to avoid pain—have become burdensome, and they are exhausted. They really do want to give up these jobs and turn things over to you.
7. But our parts want to know that they’re still needed, and so you don’t want to fire them but give them new jobs.
For example, my ambitious part really is good at working hard, and he can keep doing that, as long as he knows that his job isn’t to be the best. And my spiritual part really is good at connecting with a higher purpose, and he can keep doing that, as long as he knows that it isn’t his job to be perfect or to banish any other parts.
8. Maintain a close connection with your parts.
Try to recognize them as soon as possible when they show up—and they will, believe me. Our parts need their stories to be heard again and again, maybe for the rest of our lives.
I realize that all of this might sound a little strange to you—talking about parts as if they’re separate from us. In truth, they’re not separate, but sometimes we need more separation from them.
The best way for your true self to be in charge is to separate from your parts while letting them know that you’re still there, close by.
Because I’m a writer and have had a lot of practice using my imagination, it’s been natural for me to visualize my parts. They tend to look like me at the age I was when they first showed up—usually when I was a child. Seeing them as separate from me, especially as children, allows me to access genuine compassion for them.
The work I’ve done with my “internal family” has been some of the most important, rewarding, and spiritual work I’ve ever done. I encourage you to be open-minded and give it a try. It may turn out to be one of the best things you ever do.
Photo by h.koppdelaney
Nicholas Montemarano is the author of two novels, "The Book of Why" (2013) and "A Fine Place" (2002), and a short story collection, "If the Sky Falls" (2005). Visit him on Facebook and on Twitter.
More Recent Articles