The other day I overheard someone say, “Oh, I overlooked that. I’m a terrible person!”
I know this lovely being to have perfectionist tendencies. But what hadn’t been so starkly clear to me until I heard this language is how he conflates his value as a human being with never making mistakes. On the rare occasions he slips up, this is what he says about himself. To himself.
And to others.
Panning back I suddenly re-witnessed a lifetime of this. Me doing it to myself; others doing it to themselves; others doing it to others; others doing it to me.
Yes, doing it to. This is an attack. It’s an assault. It’s a holding of an impossible standard: perfection. And not just perfection, but perfection according to an individual: a subjective, ever-moving target, impossible to reach or sustain.
There are some who do this prevalently, but even those of us blessed with a modicum of perfectionism will sometimes perceive others’ mistakes as affronts. If someone “messes up,” according to us, they’re a terrible person. They’ve attacked us with their awfulness. When really the opposite is true. We’ve devalued them with our assessment. We’ve deemed them unworthy of living (or at least living in our presence) because of their flaws. Our fear of our own imperfection leaks, often mercilessly, onto others who probably don’t hold the same standards for themselves (or they do, but the standards are distinct from our own.)
This breaks my heart a million times over. Especially since it’s not possible to project onto others what isn’t going on a thousandfold in ourselves. “I’m a terrible person” is a chant that took root at the back of some of our skulls at a young age. Our lives became about proving this isn’t true through constant vigilance, striving, performance, judgment. Never relaxing, never settling, never feeling okay. This can be too much for a body and mind to hold. No wonder we foist some of the burden onto others.
This isn’t a universal survival pattern, but it’s pretty common—even celebrated—in our culture. Achievement, productivity, performance determines our worth. Look at cover letters. Look at commercials. Look at the damn Olympics. Mistakes don’t factor in. They’re not allowed. They’re covered up, condemned.
Of course there are wonderful things about perfectionism too (every pattern has a light side). Without the minds and talents of our über organized friends we wouldn’t have beautiful design, helpful systems, or vital infrastructure. We need these tendencies in the world. It’s just that harm is caused when we are unconsciously driven by them.
So what to do?
Challenging though it is to try to deprogram a lifetime of learned behavior, we can always start with compassion. Turn toward that voice that asserts that we or anyone else who is flawed is also awful. Connect to it gently. Ask it where it got these messages. Find their origin; question their truth.
We can spend time around those we judge as being chaotic or messy or not having their shit together. Connect with the joy, ease and creativity they may also bring. Notice that mistakes as we perceive them don’t actually result in death or anything close to it.
And hardest of all: we can let ourselves start to feel. Feel the pain and sadness inherent in holding ourselves and others to such impossible standards. Feel the freedom in doing something insane like not paying a bill right away, or being two minutes late, or not being the one to replace the empty toilet paper roll. Feel into what your body and heart are asking for in a given moment versus what Should Be Happening.
And for the love of god, go easy on yourself with this. Don’t apply perfectionist tendencies to the task of loosening them. Easier said than done, of course. So, get support. Don’t do this alone. (Yes, I know you’re capable of doing it alone, but that’s not the point here. Quite the opposite, in fact.)
Under behavior—any behavior—is our essence. Our true value and worth. Who we really are. A beautiful, already perfect soul comprising love and joy. There’s nothing to prove there. Nothing at all. It is she who we’re looking to connect with.
We’ll explore this and other patterns in upcoming posts, and at the Energy Basics workshop coming up next month.