I am starting to write a book about waking up from perfectionism. The idea began as a memoir, but after speaking with my writing coach, who is also a publisher, it made more sense to write it in the format of a “self-help” book. This means I am doing all kinds of research on perfectionism and the various psychological approaches to address it.
Perfectionism is a cluster of behaviors that are a coping mechanism for navigating feelings of anxiety and insecurity. It can result in very serious psychological suffering such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidality. However, looking at these severe cases where people meet the criteria for a mental illness diagnosis marginalizes the issue and makes it look like it is something that impacts a small percentage of the population who are vulnerable.
What I see, however, in both my therapy and my coaching practices is that the struggle with perfectionism is pervasive. It is a normal way of life for many people to be constantly striving to do better, be better, and feel better. This is viewed as a good thing. Working hard and pushing ourselves is a sign of good moral character in America and anything less is lazy.
Human beings are not designed lazy. We are naturally enthusiastic, creative, fun loving, curious, and engaged. We are not lazy. We are just tired, but we live in a culture of perfectionism in which we are bombarded with messages to strive. Advertising tells us we need more to be happy. Social media has us compare our lives to the perfect images that pass through our feed. Parents are feeling pulled in multiple directions to get it right. Children feel the pressure to succeed and achieve. It is unrelenting when we buy into the idea that we need to be anywhere or any way other than where and how we are to be happy.
Perfectionism is not a psychological issue that impacts a small percentage of individuals. It is a broad issue with wide sweeping impact that is the by-product of a misunderstanding in our culture that believes fulfillment comes from outside of us. Most of the people I work with independent of what they do: executives, business owners, health professionals, athletes, stay at home parents, independently wealthy are stressed out and reach out to me thinking I will help them to improve themselves so they can do more and feel better. I have to disappoint them right away and let them know that if they work with me, I am not interested in helping them to stay on the never-ending hamster wheel of self-improvement. Instead, I will be pointing them in the direction of their true nature so they can experience who they are. The by-product of that is not in my control or theirs, but tends to be better performance, and greater levels of joy, light-heartedness, wellbeing, and peace of mind.
We are conditioned to believe that happiness comes from success rather than seeing that happiness is our natural state. This misunderstanding drives people to work to hard like a donkey chasing a carrot. No matter how hard you work in life or on yourself there is no sustainable happiness when it looks like happiness comes from outside of you. There maybe moments, but there will always be something better or more to achieve. When happiness is contingent on anything outside of ourselves we are in a losing battle. Happiness cannot be earned. It is a state of mind we experience when we are not caught up in insecure thoughts.
When we think wellbeing and happiness are outside of ourselves, it is easy to fall into the trap of working harder on perfecting our lives and ourselves. The self-help industry feeds the beast by giving us an endless list of tasks and techniques we need to do to be happy. It may seem like progress to go from striving for external perfection in our lives to working on ourselves, but it is perhaps even more disconcerting when we experience an endless amount of imperfection to improve upon when we look in the direction of our personal psychology. This becomes a burden because now in addition to the day-to-day work of navigating life, we have an additional job of improving our psychology and our personality. This is just another way of saying I’ll be happy when … , and it is just as impossible. There will always be an infinite amount of work we can do on ourselves.
What helped me with my perfectionistic drive was to open up to a larger context than just my human experience. A spiritual understanding helped me to widen my perspective beyond my personal psychology to a frame of reference that encompassed a deeper nature that includes my personal psychology, but is much greater and unchanging. My personality and psychology are just a small part of who I am. As human our formless spiritual nature is infinite potential and that is who we are too, just like the ocean includes the waves and is greater than the waves.
Having a spiritual perspective allows us to look beyond the duality of good and bad or good and better to the peace and wellbeing that is unchanging and just as much who we are as the changing emotions and moods of our personal psychology. Just below the choppy surface of the ocean are the depths of stillness and peace. That is available to us to when we drop out of our personal thinking and experience and experience our impersonal nature. When we get a taste of this a little goes a long way, and we see that the ups and downs of our human emotional experience do not require coping mechanisms such as painful perfectionist behaviors to deal with them.
Instead, when we know that just underneath our feelings of insecurity and unworthiness exists inner peace and freedom the painful emotional experiences shrink down to size. They become easier to navigate when we understand that we are temporarily caught up in a storm of painful thinking, but it is not our natural state and will ultimately settle down, and when it does we will reconnect with the wellbeing of who we are. When we see this, coping mechanisms of striving and pushing ourselves so we can protect ourselves from painful feelings of shame and unworthiness don’t make much sense because the pain and unworthiness are temporary experiences. They don’t mean anything about us. They are momentary aberrations in our consciousness when we get caught up in distorted thoughts. There is nothing to do when this happens because our thoughts will settle down naturally if we let them and don’t keep adding on and fueling them by trying to manage, change or control them.
When we strive to improve ourselves so we can have more good feelings, we are looking in the wrong direction. The good feelings are always present in the here and now. Striving only takes us away from them. When we relax and drop into the present moment, we feel them. We drop into beautiful feelings of wellbeing, peace, and happiness. This does not come through effort or from achievement. It is who we are, and that is what we have been looking for all along.
When we see this, it is easier to let go of the coping mechanism because we see it takes us away from what we are trying to experience. The down side of perfectionism becomes clearer. Seeing this gives us more choice over engaging in the habitual behaviors. Not because we are trying to change them, but because they no longer make sense to us. If we can relax, and be ourselves exactly as we are and experience peace of mind and wellbeing, why engage in painful behaviors to try and get somewhere you never arrive at by doing them?
In the relaxing, we become our best selves. From the good feeling place inside of ourselves, we have perspective and can make leveraged decisions and choices that allow us to perform our best without struggle and pressure. We achieve from a place of flow. From this perspective we see the value of rest, fun, and connection. There is room for what lights us up and makes our hearts sing. It may require some extended rest before we see what lights us up, but it is well worth it.
Awakening from perfectionism is not another thing to do. It is a new way of being that values the experience of feeling connected with your spiritual nature. This is always available to us. It is as normal and natural as the nose on your face even if you aren’t aware of it. It is a way of being in life that has room for all of your humanness without any need to change or eradicate it. It acknowledges the totality of you that includes infinite peace, love, wisdom, joy, creativity, and inspiration that is always there and unchanging as well as the full range of the human emotional experience. We don’t need to do anything to get there. It is who we are. Seeing this allows you to experience both your human and your spiritual nature as you awaken to the raw, juicy, messy, freedom of the magnificent you.
Rohini Ross is co-founder of “The Rewilders.” Listen to her podcast, with her partner Angus Ross, Rewilding Love. They believe too many good relationships fall apart because couples give up thinking their relationship problems can’t be solved. In this season of the Rewilding Love Podcast, Rohini and Angus help a couple on the brink of divorce due to conflict. Angus and Rohini also co-facilitate private couples' intensives that rewild relationships back to their natural state of love. Rohini is also the author of the ebook Marriage, and she and Angus are co-founders of The 29-Day Rewilding Experience and The Rewilding Community. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about her work and subscribe to her blog visit: TheRewilders.org.