Mindbody counsellor and coach
Many of us know that feeling, that nagging voice inside saying "No, I want it THAT way". Even when we say "Sure, it's fine!", there might be a little (or a lot of) tension in the gut that says "Why am I agreeing to this? This isn't fine at all!".
One can argue that perfectionism can bring out the best in us and others in certain situations. The great inventors, artists, scientists, engineers and architects in history undoubtedly found themselves struggling to realize exactly what was in their heads, and pushing those involved past what had been previously considered acceptable.
In daily life for many of us perfectionists, we're often not talking about finding the perfect angle for a structural member in a building. We might be more at the scale of finding the perfect angle for the hat on our head or getting our look for the day perfect. Maybe it's the perfect way to end an email or expecting the perfect response at the perfect time from a colleague , friend or partner.
"What's wrong with that?", you may ask. Well, nothing, if it causes you no tension and doesn't drive the people around you mad.
There is a point when perfectionism leads us away from a "perfect" experience of life. This is to say, the feelings associated with having it "just right" actually can cause us to miss the beneficial qualities of having it in all its glory just "as it is".
Believe it or not, these negative feelings can actually build up and cause not only constant mental tension but chronic physical pain as well. In his book Healing Back Pain Dr John Sarno sites perfectionism as a major contributing factor to a decrease in blood flow and resulting muscle pain in an overwhelming majority of cases of chronic back pain.
So, how can an urge to do something right end up doing something so wrong, in both the mind and the body? To see the connection we can look at the origins of our perfectionism. Many of us become more and more perfectionistic with age. Why? Protection. Protection from unwanted results on one level, but on another level, protection from the associated feelings around having those unwanted results.
Picture this for example: at age 3 doing something wrong and your mother saying "No". You feel bad. You don't really know much about subtleties in feelings so it's just simply bad.
At age 15 you try to kiss a boy/girl who doesn't like you that way. They move out of the way with their hands in front of them and you feel not only bad, but now you know it is embarrassment. Another negative feeling.
At 28 you think you are in line for a promotion at work, only to find out that not only did you not get the promotion, you are actually fired! You feel not only bad and embarrassed, you become very aware of a feeling of failure. This is once again, a feeling that drains your body of positive energy.
It doesn't matter what negative feeling it is, as long as it is negative, we want to be protected from it, especially if we have been drained or hurt in the past and we don't feel particularly strong. We can become more and more sensitive to them as each new negative feeling reminds us of, or triggers a variety of negative feelings from the past. They build up and we become afraid of feeling them.
This fear of negative feelings can become so strong that we try to carefully build our lives as "top security" structures that will keep us safe; keep us feeling good. This good feeling is not that great at all though when we think about it. It's too delicate. Think about the contrary: the exhilaration we feel when we do something successfully even though we were previously afraid of doing it. This is a much more resilient good feeling. We feel happy AND strong. It's hard to tell if that pure bright feeling comes from the success in achievement or the defeat of that old predator called fear.
The first time I went rock climbing, it was great to look up at the cliff I had "conquered", but even better to know that I was not afraid to do it again. Even though it had just been a minor fear of heights, knowing that I had not let it stop me from climbing made me feel purely wonderful.
Beating something as obvious of a clear fear of heights is easy, in a way, because we know some ways to get over it. It's an easy target. What can we do about these other more subtle fears that drive our perfectionism?
Becoming conscious that they are fears is the first step.
Realizing that our reactions to "imperfect" situations and actions that others do are based on a build up of negative emotions from past experiences is another. We are not just reacting to one clerk who didn't give us good enough attention, we are also reacting to EVERY clerk that didn't give us good enough attention AND a teacher who ignored our burning question in class AND even something seemingly unrelated as falling off the curb and scratching our knees a trillion years ago....the list goes on and on and gets longer as we grow. We are not practicing our work presentation 50 times just to ensure we have a positive result, but also to avoid another one of those bad feelings.
As written by Keijzer and Geiger in NERTI (The Key to a Life without Hyper-reactivity or Phobias), and also Ekart Tolle in The Power of Now, when we do get triggered, we should stay in the moment and allow our body to feel as it wants to without reacting to it. If possible, take several minutes to just observe your body without trying to stop what is happening inside. Observing it and allowing it to follow its course is the essence of the cathartic process and if it is allowed to run its complete course, this can erase the links to past experiences.
Find out more about liberating yourself from the baggage of past negative experiences by looking into Mindbody coaching, Vipassana programs, EFT and NERTI.
Look out for my future blog about finding the balance between using your wisdom from experience but living fearlessly as though you've never been hurt.
To your health
Image by Markj Sebastian