The Trap of Perfectionism

It seems that every place I turn right now, everybody is asking “Are people really doing the best they can?”

I just started reading Brene Brown’s new book Rising Strong, so perhaps the fact that this is coming to me from everywhere else at the same time, is a personal message for me.

Like Brene I have to admit I really struggle with the belief that people are. Without being political, it is hard to see the situation in Syria as people doing their best.  That said, in their minds they may believe they are. But truly, this isn’t a political article, I am just illustrating where a challenge may be present.

What Brene has found through her research is that every person who answered “yes” to the question were part of the group she had previously identified as being wholehearted – meaning people who are willing to be vulnerable and believe in their self worth. Their self awareness of their own limitations and their attitude around falling short, was healthy as their intentions and effort were what remained their value pieces.

Going back to my first example, for myself, when I remain in that state of doubting that people are doing their best, it causes me stress and worry, brings up my insecurities, feelings of helplessness about things I have absolutely no control over.  Trust me, I am not fun to be around when I am like this. My outlook on life is dreary, I am less patient and definitely less productive, not open and absolutely not vulnerable.  My world becomes very small when I am in this space.

So, given I was having challenge with the word believe I thought I would switch it out to something that I could resonate with. Brene’s husband used the word “Assume”, being as I have trust issues, I thought I would try that.  “Do I trust that people are doing their best?” Hmmm, nope, still doesn’t work.  What word would be acceptable to me, to get me out of this negative space.  Try?  “Are people trying to do the best the can?”  Ok, doing a full body scan and while I don’t believe it 100%, my body is no longer fighting me and I can find some peace within it.  Beyond the physical changes when I say this word, I can feel the physical release of the stress and anxiety I had built up and feel myself opening up the possibility of this being the truth.

How long did that take? 2 minutes? So from this place, what is the benefit of this change in perception?

  1. I don’t feel anger towards what I don’t understand – people or actions
  2. The overall resentment for feeling helpless is reducing
  3. So many more things become possible.  Forgiveness, freedom, openness, vulnerability…

Ok, so if changing one word can change everything, was it the wording I used originally or was there a personal piece in me that got triggered by asking the question in the first place.  I suspect this is the where the real work will begin.  Let me re-word the question to what I think the real question truly is.  “Am I doing the best that I can?

My first response is no. I don’t think I have always done the best that I could have. In fact I am pretty sure if I thought about it for a moment, I could come up with a list. Therein lies a tougher question – why is it easier for me to adjust my thoughts / beliefs about other people, yet not change my belief in myself?

I am learning this is a little thing called perfectionism. According to Brene’s research, people who answer “no” to the question struggle with this issue.  What is behind perfectionism and all the masks we wear to hide it? The usual suspect, fear.  The perception is that by being perfect, I am hiding or staying safe.  i.e.: If I say I am busy, rather than trying to be perfect, my excuse is “how can this by my issue, I’m working, I can’t possibly be hiding”. But what is it I am hiding from, distracting myself from? Me of course. Facing whatever it is that is going to be tough to challenge, but means I am going to need to be uncomfortable in, to get through it to the other side.  From here I have a choice to make – stay stuck in this place or move forward, ready or not.

Obviously I have chosen to move forward and if you are reading, I suspect you will too. So how do we do this?

  1. Start is even though we aren’t ready.  The only thing worse than the fear of moving forward, is staying exactly where we are, stuck in this place where we have even outed ourselves. We can never un-know what we have just learned about ourselves, that we are afraid of something.
  2. Take a look at the things we do to hide. These can be anything from being procrastination, being super busy to bingeing and everything in between. If you can name them, you can also recognize them the next time.
  3. Intentionally try to be curious about the situation itself, the things you use to hide.  The goal here isn’t to figure out the answers, they are an amazing byproduct of simply being curious.  By changing your intention in looking at the situation from a place of curiosity, you are shifting your thinking from the limbic system in your brain to your frontal lobe. This effectively means by being curious, you are shifting from the place of fear, so no longer “feeding” the flight, fight or freeze emotions and chemical responses.
  4. Now that your brain has actually shifted, you can start to access the tools you have in your world.  These tools will help you get unstuck from this place. This is when you make a plan for an action that you will take the next time you feel like hiding behind the things you identified in number 2. The action itself isn’t what matters, it is knowledge that you have something to do when you feel the trigger and would ordinarily move to some sort of response that isn’t good for you, that keeps you in mask. i.e.: a false deadline, walk the dog, use an egg timer – anything that puts you into action, rather than your coping mechanisms to avoid feeling the fear.
  5. Take stock of the resources you already have that will help when you are feeling this way. i.e.: its not good to have “walk the dog” as your plan, if you don’t actually have a dog.  Think and perhaps prepare a list of the resources, skills and strengths that you have, combine them with your actions above. So when you feel the urge to give in to fear, all you have to do is look at your list.
  6. When in doubt, ask for help.  Even if you don’t ask, reach out.  Starting out just reaching out to do something different will be enough to break the pattern.  Over time you may need to grow into having someone keep you accountable to staying committed to your plans. Who supports you, believes in you, that can remind you of who you are when things are challenging?

By doing these things, you are making the changes on both the inside and out. It really can be that simple to start and have results. Let me quickly summarize for you,  I am connecting the dots between my perception of others, reflecting a disbelief in myself, created through fear, cloaked by perfectionism,

Now that they have been connected, the perception of “perfectionism” being the only safe place to be has been removed.  Now the rest becomes much more simple, my coping mechanisms no longer required.

Hmm… interesting how that happened. I wonder if that will happen for you too.  If you want more information on this, or how to get yourself unstuck, please connect with me. I’d be happy to help you connect your own dots.


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