Yesterday my friend Krystal sent me a link to a post by Single Dad Laughing. The post is entitled The Disease Called Perfection and it is quite simply one the best pieces of writing on shame, perfectionism and truth that I have ever read. I highly recommend finding a quiet moment and clicking over there to read the post. It has over four thousand comments. FOUR THOUSAND. That's how deeply his words touched people.
Perfectionism is a word that is tossed around a lot. Most people, I think, view perfectionism as fairly clear-cut: the quest to be perfect.
I see perfectionism like Single Dad Laughing does: a disease. It's a soul sucking, confidence eroding condition that impacts each and every one of us to varying degrees.
Why do we do this? Why do we resent other people so much when they let us down? Why do we indulge in self-loathing and avoidance behaviors when we fail to live up to our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves? Perfectionism is the reason. We all have a storyline in our heads - a blueprint, if you will - of how we think life should be, and we spend a lot of time ruminating about the ways people (including ourselves), places and things don't measure up.
Dig deeper into perfectionism and you'll find that we don't, for the most part, actually believe we can achieve a perfect life. We don't think we can actually have that perfect body, more money than we know what to do with, a sparkling clean house, kids that never struggle or fail, and the world's happiest relationship.
We know, logically, that these goals are unsustainable and unrealistic. Everyone's weight fluctuates. Everyone's house gets messy. Everyone's marriage has ups and downs. Everyone's kids struggle. Everyone experiences financial strain of one kind or another. But when we're stuck in our own perfectionist inner dialogue, we lose sight of our commonalities with other people. We suffer from terminal uniqueness; we self-select away from empathy and truth.
We know we aren't perfect, and can't be perfect, so what's behind all this?
I think we engage in perfectionism to mask fear. It's easier to look at how we want things to be than to see how they really are. It is destructive to view the world through the lens of "should be" or "could be", because that lens will always leave us falling short. Eventually we are worn down by all the not-measuring-up and the pathology of perfection - the symptoms of this disease- rears its ugly head.
With the risk of over simplifying a complex issue, let's take an example. You are trapped in a flat, loveless marriage. What happens next, usually, is that you start to see happy marriages everywhere. It's too scary to peel back the layers of your own marriage, your own decisions, your own fears, and so you focus externally and search for ways that your spouse doesn't fit into your vision of marriage. Everything he or she does becomes an irritant, another example of ways that he or she is ruining your happiness.
Or, and this is even more dangerous, the self-loathing kicks in and you dwell on the ways you don't measure up. Your inner dialogue takes over: I'm too fat, my sex drive is gone, I don't keep a neat enough house, I don't contribute financially, (or I work too much).
See how quickly perfectionism - the notion that there is a way your marriage should be, or the way you see everyone else's marriage - can lead to resentments and self-loathing?
You get discouraged. A happy marriage seems unattainable, and you feel trapped. You have kids, a house together, and you feel utterly stuck and alone. You put on a happy face to mask your pain from the world, fearful of judgment or alienation. Avoidance behaviors kick-in (the symptoms of the disease of perfection). You turn to food/alcohol/drugs/the arms of another person to distract yourself from your misery. Or perhaps you turn your unhappiness in on yourself, and suffer from depression/anxiety/eating disorders.
You become caught in the web of perfectionism, falling into the chasm between what the world sees and how you feel on the inside.
So how do we avoid this trap? How do we break free from the cycle of perfectionism, denial and shame?
The truth. Put a voice to the scary truth you seek to avoid. In the case of the example, perhaps the truth is this: I don't think I love my husband anymore. Perhaps the truth is even scarier than that: my husband abuses/neglects/mistreats me. Instead of looking at your life from the outside in - what would people think if they knew? - drill down and find your truth. Separate out the way you think your life should be, or the way you think the world sees your life, from the way you feel on the inside. Perfectionism is all about the way we think life should be. Truth is about the way life actually is.
Many things prevent us of from facing the truth, but the biggest one, in my opinion, is fear. Fear of not measuring up to our own expectations, or others' expectations, fear of the unknown, fear of being different. You lose sight of the fact that whatever you are going through, no matter how bad it is, there are countless others who know exactly how you feel, and that help is available. For everything.
To get help, though, you need to take that first step and tell yourself the truth, whatever it may be: I think I have a problem with alcohol, I can't stop eating, I can't stop starving, my marriage is falling apart, my kid is struggling.
We pour so much energy into striving for the "should be" - perfectionism - that we don't leave enough energy for truth, self-love and acceptance.
If you have children, think about how much time you spend worrying about them. How much of that worry is driven by your fear that they won't fit in? That they will struggle in school? That they will end up with trouble with addiction, eating disorders, cutting, promiscuity or bullying?
If you're like me, you spend a lot of time worrying about these things. How can we NOT?
Worry isn't a bad thing, of course. It's worry's cousin, perfectionism, that concerns me. Worry prompts us towards action. Perfectionism prompts us towards denial. If you're worried about your kid, you will talk to your kid. If you're caught up in perfectionism, you will strive to convince yourself and/or other people that everything is okay.
We can't teach our children how to love themselves as they are, forgive themselves for their mistakes and weaknesses, get help when they need it, if we don't learn how to do these things ourselves.
There is an expression I hear a lot in recovery (obviously a knock-off of the standard airline warning): "Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others". I think about this all the time: I can never love anyone more than I love myself. It's true. I cannot give to anyone else a gift I don't give to myself, first.
If I'm caught up in perfectionism, denial and shame, I don't have any energies left for gentle self-acceptance, love and truth.