Living For Love
Set Yourself Free From the Daily Stress, Worry & Hurry that Wears You Down
by Dr. Shawn Haywood
The Problem: Perfectionism
Before you can understand what it means to trade self-sellout habits for self-honor, so you can learn to focus, be wildly productive, let go of frustration and seething resentment, and feel truly free, content, and happy, you must first comprehend the role that perfectionism plays in your life and how you want to handle perfectionism moving forward.
Because people believe that perfectionism is helpful and useful and wear it as a badge of honor. When in reality, perfectionism is the jewel of self-sellout—which makes it the first and most harmful self-sellout strategy we’re going to discuss. We will address how to weed out perfectionism and uplevel to skills that truly make your life and heart soar.
Perfectionism is an interesting and alluring concept to most, but it is too often chased, promoted, and glorified. It is accompanied by its full-time party buddies— pride, anger, resentment, and frustration. Most notably and most damaging, it is accompanied by shame. Where perfectionism lies, shame stands firmly as its mate. Be sure to understand this piece: perfectionism and shame are a mated pair.
They are inseparable. So the next time you give a giggle and say something that begins with, “I’m just a perfectionist….” I know that you are also saying, “I feel ashamed because I believe I am not enough and may never be.”
Make no mistake. Perfectionism will use you up like a tattered rag until you are exhausted, sick, depressed, depleted, and waking up every morning with a sickly pit of anxiety in your stomach. Yet, even when you are completely and utterly exhausted, sick, anxious, and depleted, you try and try again to be, do, get, have, and force perfection and the illusion of productivity to which you so tightly tie your perceived value and worthiness.
First and foremost, perfectionism is a maladaptive coping strategy, which is just a fancy way of explaining that it is a learned way to cope with experiences from childhood that one does not know how to navigate in a healthy way. To be clear, perfectionism is NEVER healthy. It is no different than substance abuse, chronic rumination, binge eating, anxious avoidance, overworking, blame, emotional numbing, or paralyzing procrastination.
In fact, Brene Brown punctuates this point beautifully when she states in The Gifts of Imperfection that “understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Perfectionism hampers success. It's often a path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
Yes, perfectionism does show up as addictive. It hosts distinct obsessive qualities as well. It is like perfectionism comes with its own engine, driving you forward, no matter what the emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual cost is to you or the people in your life. Yet, it is true that the emotional fallout associated with perfectionism is extensive and intense. Along with an overarching effort to mitigate experiencing shame, blame, and judgment, perfectionists are easily triggered because they live on the edge of exhaustion and frustration—essentially, any little thing can serve to nudge you right off the emotional cliff and into the pits of despair, anxiety, loneliness, anger, depression, or a manic state of trying to do and accomplish more to make up for a perceived failure.
Yet, when it comes to perfectionism, people are inclined to boast and wave their perfectionism flag like it is a positive thing like I used to do. However, if you were an addict, you would be doing everything you could to stop (or at least hide it). Perfectionism is incredibly detrimental.
The downfall of perfectionism is twofold. First, perfectionism embodies impossible standards and expectations that taunt the recipient almost constantly, which makes it impossible to live without its other partner in crime: constant and often covert anger. The anger might not be felt or acted on in every moment and oftentimes is denied altogether. But it is ready to be triggered or unleashed at any moment. This unleashing can be displayed in nearly any form: impatience, frustration, yelling, door slamming, shaming, criticizing, irritation, pet peeves, and more. And the denial of the anger that stems from perfectionism looks like hovering, micro-managing, criticism masquerading as “helpful feedback,” binge eating or other escapes, self-deprecation, and the like.
This brings us to the second downfall of perfectionism: a person can never feel whole or peaceful, or joyful under the rule of perfectionism. Please absorb and feel the full weight of that statement. As long as you are practicing perfectionism, you can never feel whole or at peace. Yikes, right?! Pleasure is sometimes available, but genuine inner joy and happiness are not.
Striving for strict perfection goes hand in hand with pressure, shame, and a myriad of “shoulds,” making peaceful day-to-day living impossible. It steals the inner peace that is your birthright. While perfectionism might just get you some socially acceptable success, it robs you of emotional and relationship success.
Why? Because perfectionism is a constantly demanding tyrant, echoing sharply “more,” “better,” “faster,” and worst of all, “You’re never enough.” This tyrannical voice is constantly lurking in the halls of the mind, ready to pop out from any and every corner to remind you just how small you are. Alongside this message is an underpinning voice that says, “You will be worthless until you are perfect.”
What is soul-crushing about the perfection quest is that it is a completely empty and depleting endeavor. Even if you believe perfectionism has helped you succeed or accomplish wonderful things in the past, it has harmed you far more because it promotes a complete intolerance of simply being human, which encourages harsh and cruel criticism and judgment of yourself, loved ones, and even strangers.
In truth, you cannot prove your worth. You simply are worthy.
The quest for perfection is filled to the brim with loneliness, fear, worry, anger, and strife from business to the bedroom. Perfectionism keeps your guard up and your armor on, making vulnerability impossible. This often means that you never really let your guard down, let others in, let others help and support you (no matter how much you complain about wanting support), nor does the perfectionist let herself need or depend on anyone fully. Not letting others in is justified by the voice that claims, “No one will do it the way I do,” “No one is competent,” or “Other people are idiots.”
Yet, perfectionism, due to chronic impatience, rarely takes the time to kindly and lovingly ask or train others to do what needs to be done, or make space for others to do things, god-forbid, another way other than yours! Perfectionists just become angry and lament how they “have to do everything themselves,” all the while making zero space for others to help or support them in ways that feel good to them. “My way or the highway” is the dictum of the perfectionist and acts as a significant source for others in the perfectionist’s life to also feel like they are not good enough or can never measure up.
Perfectionism is defeating and self-destructive simply because one is striving for something that already exists in all things and all people at all times. The rest is a dedicated quest for the fictitious Loch Ness monster! So, what is being chased is, in every possible way, an illusion, thus setting yourself up for a continuous cascade of disappointment, drama, and upset.
An example is wanting to have a “perfect” body. But what does that mean? Why isn’t your body perfect now? How are you defining a perfect body? And is your idealized version of a perfect body even remotely attainable? Starting in my young teens, into my thirties, and even a bit into my forties, I, too, wanted a perfect body. However, my idealized “perfect body” was a long, lanky yogi-type body. Um, news flash, I am five foot three inches tall! I am an ex-gymnast. This is apples and oranges. I was never going to be long and lanky! I had set up a vision that could only bring me heartache and an ongoing sense of failure. And so it goes with perfectionism—a consistent set-up-to-fail dynamic in one way or another. Most of the time, wanting a perfect body in and of itself leads to chronic dieting, binging, self-reproach, and boatload after boatload of shame, guilt, fear, and frustration.
Let us take a pulse on where you currently land on your beliefs about perfectionism. Do you currently believe that perfectionism is a blessing or a curse? A help or a hindrance? Deeply self-honoring or self-sabotaging?
A Recovering Perfectionist
I grew up with a tribe of strong, perfectionistic warrior women—my dear mother, fiery red-headed grandmother, and two amazing aunts—who all had powerful influences on me, especially as the only girl in my generation! Learning all facets of perfectionism was certainly a trained skill.
In addition to being total rockstars, these warrior women were fiercely independent (i.e., perfectionists). For example, “I don’t need a man for anything” was a sentiment I would hear quite frequently.
As a result, I also learned to be fiercely independent. I bought the story that I should not need ANYONE, not even my husband.
As I’ve shared previously, I was an adorable little gymnast from six to nineteen. If you do not know much about gymnastics, it is one of the top five sports created, seemingly specifically, for temperaments who are drawn to all things requiring extreme “perfection.”
Ahhh, I did love this about gymnastics.
I loved every juicy detail—the precision of each movement, the power and strength that my little body could generate, and the fact that there were multiple things to correct in a single arm movement. From my fingertips to the tips of my toes and every bit in between, I was provided dozens of opportunities to be “just perfect.” And then, of course, there are the literal hundreds of moments in a single day to judge, criticize, abuse, and condemn each and every little bit that was “imperfect.”
Yet, even with all the abuse, gymnastics was my one safe haven in many ways. And the gym was my sanctuary. It was also a palace of pain and suffering. I thrived on those intricate details, and because I am naturally attuned to small nuances and tiny details, I was very good at nitpicking, a gift on a few occasions but mostly a curse.
The majority of the time I spent as a gymnast was spent horrifically abusing myself mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically because “it” (or I) was rarely perfect enough. But what was enough? What would have been enough? Of course, I had no idea. I didn’t have a measuring stick by which to accurately measure the level of perfection (or not)—I just lived in a constant mental state that echoed “not good enough” or “never enough.”
A soul-sickening way to live…never…enough…
In the early years with Chris and me, perfectionism got in the way of my ability to be vulnerable, allow myself to need my husband, and stay connected. This took a great toll on our marriage. It took quite some time to figure out the actual role perfectionism played. There were numerous versions of the “I have to be perfect” story, but the basic scenario went something like this: I would be working on something on my computer, say learning to use new software or changing things on the website. All of a sudden, I would get stuck and not know how to move forward. I would ask Chris in a very angry tone for help, and because he has always been unconditionally loving, he would stop what he was doing (if he could) and help me figure out a solution. Though sometimes, all I had to do was huff and puff a few frustrated grunts, and Chris would “magically” pop over to see if I needed help (or rescue me?!). One old payoff from the anger that stemmed from the frustration of perfectionism (and the voice that said, “You worthless idiot, why can’t you just figure this out on your own?”) was control and getting what I wanted without ever having to be brave or vulnerable and ask for it with grace, patience, and love. Yes, the inner workings of the mind and ego are snazzy little manipulators.
Instead of being vulnerable (which I had no concept of at the time) and allowing myself to need people, I simply recycled the defense mechanisms and emotional weapons I had seen play out during my childhood.
Chris is extremely skilled and natural in all things technology, which is a gift that highlights our unique blend of gifts and has strengthened both of our businesses! But in those days, because I was not perfectly skilled in the ways he was, I felt inferior, not enough, and—a bummer of bummers—envy, which breeds additional anger, resentment, and not-enoughness. When the anger and frustration would swell up, I would ask him for help, but simultaneously be mad at him for being “better” than me and use these situations as excuses to pick fights, pout, and punish (which was a self-punishment for not being, yep, you guessed, perfect enough!). Once a flare-up happened, I would dish out the silent treatment for a bit, and then in an hour (or several), we would “move on.”
This vein of perfectionism made sure there were always flare-ups between Chris and me and that consistent emotional safety, vulnerability, and connection were impossible.
Outside of my gymnast days and my relationship with Chris, I was a practiced superstar in perfectionism—I carried it into every other facet of my life as I grew up and into adulthood. So much so that if I did not think I would shine brightly at something, I would not even try. On top of that, I had an intensely low tolerance for mistakes and frustration before I fell off the proverbial ledge into either extreme anger and self-hate or depression.
I used to constantly strive to have the perfect figure, perfect personality, perfect humor, be the perfect wife, have the perfect career, be the perfect amount of intelligence, and anything else I could conceive of needing to be perfect in or with.
Chasing this particular mythical unicorn enveloped my life for way too many lonely, exhausting, frustrating, and self-honor-free years. In my efforts to be perfect, I accumulated a lot of habits and strategies for attempting to live up to my unrealistic expectations and win the approval of others.
The truth is perfectionism IS a curse. An illusion. A mythical Pegasus hunted with extreme, all-consuming, and exhausting discipline that dangles a “happiness just ahead” sign but is, in fact, a destination that never actually materializes. It is a waterless desert, a barren pear tree, and an emptying of the spirit.
Am I painting a vivid enough picture?
I am now a recovering perfectionist. I hope you will be soon as well. Laying down perfectionism is not easy. The retired perfection tyrant inside sometimes still hops up off the bench to challenge my resolve, and tell me I am not good enough, productive enough, successful enough, loving enough, meditating enough, spiritual enough, kind enough, doing enough, and worst, loving enough—or any other “enough” insecurity the mind can dig up to prey upon. Most of the time, I see through the ego’s feeble facade and give her a giggle, sprinkle on a little self-love, and a “thank you, but no thank you” to this demeaning voice. Once “she” (the voice of demanding perfectionism) finds that her efforts are futile, she quickly scurries back to the bench.
As she soon will for you too.
Again, you are already perfect. You have absolutely nothing to prove.