The Anxiety of Perfectionism
“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle,
but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
~ Brene Brown
One of the biggest barriers for many of us in finding happiness and feeling that we are living a meaningful, authentic life is a voice. A very particular voice that comes from so deep inside of ourselves that often we are not even consciously aware of it - it runs underneath our thoughts and drives our actions like a revving engine, always on the go.
That voice at times may be subtle, almost without words, showing up more as a feeling of being chronically under pressure. Perhaps there is a heaviness or tightness in our body, a sense that we can’t ever fully relax and ‘let go’. Other times that voice is more forceful, warning what might happen if we somehow come up short or don’t succeed at a goal we’ve set. At its worse, it brings a full-on feeling of panic and fear that we may outright fail, or say or do something that will result in an enormous pile of shame and judgment crashing down upon us.
That voice is the anxiety that underlies “perfectionism”
It’s no surprise that we live in a culture that breeds perfectionism and heavily prizes outward images of success. And the truth of it is that we are usually highly rewarded by our family, employer, teachers, and social media for our hard efforts. Over time, our self-esteem becomes based on what other people think of us, and a feeling of emptiness creeps in as our identity becomes more of a human ‘doer’ than a human being. To grow we need to be able to take risks, try new things, and stretch our boundaries, but the fear of making a mistake and being somehow less than perfect stops that life-force energy. We feel cut off from our hearts, our intuition, and our bodily-felt sense of relaxed confidence. Life begins to feel stale, without passion or purpose.
Many years ago, a friend recommended that I participate in a personal development process called Path of Love. And with quite a bit of nervousness - I did. One of the greatest gifts that Path of Love has given me is separation from that inner voice of perfection. I came to realize that my striving for perfection - to do everything that was expected of me and more - was so I didn’t have to feel broken. For me to have “made a mistake” would have meant that somehow “I was a mistake”. Like many perfectionists, my inner voice was very harsh when I didn’t achieve what I had set out to do. I was operating from fear rather than my authentic truth of how I felt and what I wanted. When I work with people today to heal their underlying shame and fear it is from the place of us being “fellow travelers” on the road back to reclaiming our worthiness and self-love.
For many of us, the pattern of trying to do everything “right” and avoid mistakes started in our childhood. As adults, we can look at children and see that making mistakes is part of the learning process, but when we were young we saw achieving as a way to avoid any perceived or actual criticism and to get the love and attention we craved. We did everything and anything we could to avoid failure, to avoid feeling the chaos and embarrassment that we imagine would come if we somehow did not live up to the expectations of others. This inward drive we developed to do something (or everything) perfectly is there to protect us. It became a part of our personality, and that part of us is consistently working very hard to keep us out of failure and self-loathing.
This drive within us to never fail is not only in our mind but very much wired into our body as well. It is a part of our sympathetic nervous system, which is also responsible for responding to stress and initiating our “fight or flight” response when we feel under threat. By keeping us in sympathetic activation our nervous system is keeping us away from something that it perceives as a much bigger threat - fear or shame - which often leads us to feeling despair, shut-down or depression. Staying in a state of sympathetic nervous system activation, of always trying to be more and do more despite how stressed, overwhelmed or tired we are feeling, is a way of avoiding these difficult emotions. Additionally, the striving towards perfection can help us feel safe by focusing our attention on mastering something or giving us the illusion of outward control. But this unyielding driver within creates a toll on our minds and body, because our sympathetic nervous system stress response is supposed to be time-limited, not continuous. We need to restore balance within via our parasympathetic nervous system, “the rest and digest” branch that also allows us to feel safe and connected to ourselves and others
When we see our perfectionist patterns as a protective part of our mind and body, we allow the possibility of holding them with self-compassion and understanding. This can help create the needed space within to notice the patterns when they come up, rather than being driven by them. Check-in with yourself in this moment and see if you can sense how your perfectionist part feels in your body. Maybe your shoulders tighten, or there’s tension around your head, belly or heart. When you are in “perfectionist mode” your focus can narrow and you may feel quite alone. You may feel it is “all up to me” to get it done, to figure it all out. The idea of being able to reach out to someone else for help, for support, or for connection does not even enter into the world of possibilities. As a result, your world narrows and your energy gets focused in your head and away from the heart and body.
To move out of this pattern we need support and safe holding so we can feel and process the anxiety of perfectionism. In the Path of Love, we go on that journey. Layer by layer we move from our minds back into our hearts and body so we can come home to the truth of who we are underneath the layers of self-protection. We develop tools and skills that allow us to authentically share our feelings and deepen our connections with others. We are more accepting of our human limitations (and those of others), have trust in ourselves, and connect on a more meaningful level with others. As we come to know the truth of who we are and recognize that same truth in those around us, our layers of protection melt away. We feel at home once again in our mind and body.