The antidote to perfectionism

Photo by Brodie Vissers

Perfectionism is a survival strategy disguised as a cure. It is born as a response to our deep feelings of inadequacy and shame. The strategy is adaptive and can feel successful in the short-term, but the problem is, it ultimately fails us. We can never achieve perfection no matter how hard we work and how much we accomplish, and worse is the costs we incur along the way. Perfectionism keeps us trapped in our doing, because we have not yet learned to accept our being. And our being is not only where we find freedom, it is also where we connect with the depth of our creativity, joy, and intuition. It is where all of the answers to our original wounding lie.

Let’s break this down a little more. When we are in a doing state, we can feel rushed, pressured, and with an underlying state of never enough-ness. If we are not balancing our doing with moments of being, our doing can easily enter a state of overwhelm. This might look like a racing heart, a distracted mind, endlessly multi-tasking, decision paralysis, and/or an internal feeling of impending failure or doom. In other words, the face of anxiety.

It feels like if we could just work a little bit faster, a little bit harder then everything would be solved. But this is an illusion. The anxiety of perfectionism tricks us into thinking we are problem-solving or creating a better future for ourselves, but, when we are disconnected from our bodies and living solely in our mind, this creates an imbalance which directly gets in the way of our goals It is, in fact, our very velocity that is keeping us stuck. If we bring to mind an image of someone running quickly in place, a plume of smoke enveloping their legs like a cartoon character as they try and stay one step ahead of their own fear, we see that there is a level of reality that is obscured through this frenzy. The most important reality, in fact-the one directly in front of us.

Our thoughts can live in the past, present, and future, whereas our bodies can only live in the present. To be effective, our body and our mind must be aligned, thus together in the present. To slow down and become embodied decreases our anxiety and grounds us in effective action at the same time. Overly relying on just our mind without the grounding of our body, creates an impossible equation to be solved and is a symptom of perfectionism. Being in a body has limits, unlike our mind which can imagine a world that is impossible for us to reach. The limitlessness of our mind is an amazing function when it comes to our creativity, but becomes dangerous when we use it as a weapon against ourselves, our bodies, and our expectations in the day to day world. We begin to expect ourselves to be endlessly productive, endlessly talented, endlessly perfect. We can see it in our mind’s eye after all, so why can’t we just get there?

The irony is, the medicine is actually in our surrender. Surrender to slowing down and aligning with what is versus our mental fantasies of what should be. To surrender to what is, is to accept our reality of being embodied beings. To be in a body requires rest, fuel, play, movement, and time to process and repair. We are not machines. We are not ideas in our head. We are living beings and our body tells us moment by moment what we need. We refuse to listen and then we wonder why we feel so sick, so anxious, so inadequate. Embodiment requires a slowing down, a savoring of the present moment to be able to fully integrate and replenish our energy, our life force.

When we do this fully and totally, we actually gain more energy and more clarity to pursue our goals. We are able to connect to our intuition which shows us the next right step and we are able to fill our cup which gives us the necessary resources to succeed. If slowing down is the medicine, where does the working and the doing fit in? With the time that is left over. I know. This feels radical. Rather than starting from a place of our own expectations or our never-ending to do list, we radically prioritize our need for nourishment and pleasure first.

You might be thinking but what about mothers? What about people who have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet? I’m very aware that our culture has set up a deeply unhealthy and unjust system for people to thrive in, and part of the work is to challenge what our culture prioritizes and to gain access to livable wages, paid child care, and a more equitable system. This disconnect from human needs is why we fight, why it’s so important. Because as embodied beings this system is making us sick. And it is not the individuals at fault, but the beliefs and conditions that the system passed down to us.

And even then, even then I encourage you to radically prioritize your own nourishment when and in the spaces that you can. After coming home from a long day of working and you can choose between cleaning up the kitchen or taking a hot shower, choose the one that is for you. An entirely organized home doesn’t even compare to a kernel of your nourishment as an embodied being. Your energy is what drives everything and your energy is only sustainably effective when it is fed.

So, I challenge you to continually check in with yourself and notice if you are approaching your day and your tasks from a place of surrender and embodiment or in a flurry of relentless striving and overwhelm. If the latter, see this a sign that you are out of alignment and everything is even more out of reach then it needs to be. The antidote is what feels like the hardest thing in the world to do: Stop. Slow down. Breathe. Take a nap. Throw away your to do list for the afternoon. Go on a walk. Be human.

I’m a licensed mental health therapist who loves combining neuroscience, holistic health, somatic work, and spirituality to give people tools to heal trauma.

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