The Antidote to Perfectionism
I spend my time immersed in contemplating opposites. When clients come to me with what they want to change, I’m always looking for the negative feeling that is at the root of their problems. Then, I look for the opposite of that feeling, so I can help them shift to it. In the case of perfectionism, the opposite is uniqueness.
But let me back up. What leads you to feel that you need to be perfect in the first place?
Early in life, your sense of self is developed through absorbing how people around you feel about being human. It becomes a sort of rechargeable battery from which your brain generates every moment of your life, automatically, without your conscious input. This rechargeable battery ends up containing two kinds of energy:
1. Well-being, which is the kernel of energy you began with in the womb. Moments in which you feel good just being yourself or moments that feel effortless are generated from well-being.
2. Learned Distress, the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just the way I am.” Your negative moments or moments in which you have to work hard for things to go well are generated from Learned Distress.
One of the ways your brain gives you to survive while feeling that there is something wrong with you is your attempts to be perfect. “If I am perfect enough, I will be OK.” You probably already know on a conscious level that it’s impossible to be perfect, or even that it isn’t good for you to try. You might even say that you have learned that you don’t need to be perfect. But, if you still feel that pressure from deep within to be perfect in some way, this is evidence that your Learned Distress is causing a coping mechanism to kick in.
So, now, back to the opposite of perfectionism: uniqueness. Perfectionism is based on comparison to a standard of some sort. But when you think of something unique—like a snowflake—you might say that each snowflake is perfect in its own uniqueness. Each is different, but not better than or worse than. There is no standard to which they have to conform, no “perfect snowflake” against which they are judged. What if it were the same way for people?
I recently suggested to a client that it might be good for everyone if she were to do things in her own unique way. She came back to me a couple weeks later, saying that she just couldn’t work with that concept at all, because her experience in life has been that others are inconvenienced when she does that. All she could comprehend of her uniqueness was feeling disorganized and being late all the time—her inability to be perfect. We came up with a new concept that helped her open up to the fact that her well-being is who she really is, and that it’s safe to tap into that. Even though she had crossed out “do things in my own unique way” in her journal, her brain kept working with it.
A week later, she told me that she had to deliver a project “late” to someone, but this person didn’t feel inconvenienced at all. And, she showed up to a class she teaches without being prepared “perfectly.” Her students not only loved that class, but asked her to continue teaching in just the improvised way that resulted from her being what she considered being unprepared. They actually liked her unique way much better than when she had tried to conform to the “perfect” way to teach. She is finding out what I have seen for myself and so many of my clients—that often, the thing that feels “wrong” about us is just what the world needs and wants.
Another client is a professional musician in an arena that demands a sort of cookie-cutter perfection. She has felt for a long time that she had to work harder than everyone else to attain perfection, and this felt like a huge struggle. As her shift towards uniqueness has taken place, she has felt increasingly that she could just rely on the fact that she knows how to play very well already. She has felt more relaxed and able to express herself artistically, rather than conform to the “perfect way.” And, she has received a lot of unsolicited, positive feedback from many people since this shift began.
Where do you feel the pressure to be perfect? What if you could allow your uniqueness to shine, instead? What might the world gain from you sharing who you really are? Uniqueness always makes for a much richer, more vibrant way to express yourself, and the more of us that do that, the richer and more vibrant our world becomes.