Before I get into the meat of this topic, I want to take a second to address why I’m doing these posts differently. One of the reasons I started this blog and connected it with music is because I’m a musician. I am deeply familiar with the healing powers of music and how impactful music is on many of our lives.
This time, I decided I’d start singing these songs for the video link because I thought it would lend another level of intimacy to the material. My concern about what people will say about me performing songs makes me feel the need to make a disclaimer:
As a youth, I was often accused of showing off. And frankly, I was showing off all the time, but I didn’t even know it. I needed a lot of attention back then to validate that I was o.k. (I’ll get into that in a bit, once I start discussing perfectionism).
Today, I don’t feel I’m showing off. I feel my voice is a gift — a gift that I’m extremely grateful for and am happy to share. Music and mental health are what I’m best at, and I no longer want to keep them completely separated from one another. It’s vulnerable for me to put myself out there in this way, but what the hell…let’s see what happens.
Thanks to my pal, Jam Alker for backing me up. (I have to be a good friend and plug his stuff: go check out his music at www.jamalker.com!).
Now, on to perfectionism…
I actually started to write this blog post several months ago. At that time, I was in the middle of an intense, acute episode of perfectionism. I say “episode” as if it were a bout of depression I was battling, because that’s what it felt like. Everything that I thought, felt, and experienced was through the lens of perfectionism. I’ve got a lot of change happening these days. My business is growing and changing, and my husband just quit his corporate job to go back to grad school, leaving me to be the breadwinner. So, I feel vulnerable, exposed, and overall, not good enough. Reading now what I wrote just a couple months ago makes me aware of just how debilitating my perfectionism can be.
Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on what perfectionism is and what it isn’t. I think the general consensus about perfectionism is that if you identify as such, that means you feel the need to do everything perfectly.
I don’t think this is true. I mean, I’m sure there are many people out there who identify that way, but perfectionism sinks much deeper than that. Instead of striving for “perfect,” perfectionists all have their own bar set for themselves.
In some areas, the bar is set at a “normal” level and in others, it’s astronomically high — informed by societal expectations, family rules, etc. Basically, in whatever realm you’ve assigned yourself an impossible goal, you’re constantly feeling as if you’re not good enough. If you want to call it “not-good-enough-ism” instead of perfectionism, that probably works too.
For example, in my life, though I consider myself a perfectionist, my house is not immaculately clean (much to my husband’s chagrin). But, if I disappoint someone I love…forget it — I’m beating myself up relentlessly, feeling like the biggest piece of shit to ever walk the Earth.
Brené Brown talks about “healthy striving” versus perfectionism, where healthy striving is motivated by ourselves, and perfectionism is motivated by what other people think.
I like where this definition is going, but I’ve found it’s easy for people to say “Oh yeah, I’m motivated to do better. This is all coming from me,” when I can feel that deep down it’s not healthy striving at all.
I think there’s more nuance than that, and for those of us who struggle with perfectionism, we’ve internalized the screwed up, impossible-to-reach goals and decided that it’s coming from us, when it actually originated elsewhere.
For example, in my head, I believe that all bodies are beautiful and we should accept ourselves as we are, but I often compare my body to what I think it should look like — which is largely based on what society categorizes as beautiful. I will never be tall and thin, so I’m already starting with a huge deficit, even though I understand I’ve set an impossible goal.
Perfectionism is just as much an “ism” as alcoholism and can make one’s life completely unmanageable. Our society is pathologically over-stressed, over-worked, over-medicated and so on and so on…and these issues can lead to higher levels of cortisol, which is linked to decreased bone density, digestion problems, interference with metabolism, weakened immune systems and more.
I often say to my clients who struggle with addiction that the only difference between their “ism” and someone else’s is that their coping mechanisms will kill them faster. But I do believe perfectionism can kill. Emotions are energy, and when we don’t deal with them in a healthy way, sometimes the body lets us know we’re not doing it right. If you don’t believe me, check out the book When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection.
And now you’re like… “O.K., I’m depressed. I’m a “not-good-enough-ist” and clearly I’m going to die.” (Or maybe that’s just me? I came from a very histrionic family — drama comes naturally to me). The good news about perfectionism is that it’s driven by shame.
Wait…how is that GOOD news? It’s good news because we know how to deal with shame! Empathy is the antidote to shame, which means self-compassion is the antidote to perfectionism. Self-compassion is basically self-empathy.
I wrote about self-compassion in my last blog post, but I’ve made an exciting discovery since then! (See, I knew there was a good reason to have a looooooong stretch of time between posts). I recognized there was a part of myself that wouldn’t accept self-compassion because I didn’t want to heal. There is/was a faulty message I was telling myself that if I accept self-compassion and heal, then my struggles would be invalidated.
Many of us struggle with competing priorities like this. If you consider yourself a self-saboteur, then start to consider what you GAIN from your pain. There’s always a payoff to our behavior, whether it’s conscious or not. (Sort of like the “bad” kid who acts out to get attention, but as adults, we tend to be much more nuanced about it).
So, once one can identify the part of oneself that doesn’t want to get better, what do you do? Love the fuck out of it. Seriously. I thought of that part of myself as a cuddly kitten crawling on my chest so I could pet and care for it. I KNOW it sounds cheesy! And it is, but this is deep work, friends.
I always used to shun the thought of inner child work, but the deeper I get into my own stuff, the more I find it’s necessary. On some level, we’re all hurt kids who need to be loved and accepted for who we are. Once we accept where/who we are, only then can we begin to change.
I learned about these parts of selves and how to apply self-compassion from Tim Desmond, a psychotherapist and a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He just released a workbook on self-compassion. You bet I’ll be digging into that the second it arrives.
I believe that you (the collective you, and whoever YOU are specifically because I believe all humans are worthy of love and belonging) deserve all the love and joy in the world. But when I turn it on myself, there’s something about me that says I don’t deserve it as much as you do.
Would you be willing to join me in suspending that not-good-enough belief just long enough to be kind to ourselves, just for today? And then maybe we can make that decision each morning? One day at a time…