She’s scaling the stony edifice of a Colorado mountain, a rope tied to her belt linking her with the Outward Bound leader above, and I am marveling at her. Like a spider monkey, she’s reaching out with strong arms to find the holds above, extending her legs wide for the support that the earth has to give her, and her dancer’s body with every movement reveals its grace. Then she stops. “I can’t. I can’t do it anymore. Let me down.” The terror in her voice is real. The leader coaches her, and the group gathered around me lends to a chorus of support. “You’re doing beautifully! Keep going, you’re over half way to the top.” She tries again, reaching and extending and springing from hold to hold, gaining more feet until she is little more than a body length from the summit. “No, no, I can’t, I know I can’t. I just can’t.” The leader relents, and carefully lets out rope as this woman, so close, has talked herself out of her evident ability. When she finds the firm flat land again, she doubles over, and bursts into tears.
I am disappointed, and I understand. A few minutes before, it was me hooked on the rope and depending on the person on top to hold it firm (“on belay”) instead of her, taking so much time to determine each hold that the person guiding me called me on it. “It’s fine, all of the choices are fine. You’re perfect.” “Yes,” I shout back, “but not perfect enough.” I think we both catch the import of those words at the same time, I’m-not-perfect-enough slams into me and I gasp. This is revelatory, and for the rest of the climb, I attempt to not second-guess myself, even slipping once only to feel the safe tug of the rope holding me suspended and find myself breathless and exhilarated at the top.
She was not perfect enough, and for her, the only other option was that she would surely fail. She would surely fall./
Signs of perfectionism
This happened many years ago, long before I became a psychotherapist, but it has come back to me time and again, not only in the work my clients do, but in my work with them. Perfectionism hounds us. In particular, it dogs those with either demanding parents or those who ignore their children. The belief is that if by some magical happenstance they hit upon the perfect action, behavior, visual presentation, grade, athletic achievement ad nauseam, that the parent will at last turn towards them with a smile, see them, acknowledge them as worthy. It is never satisfied. Such a parent, even if they turn and see perfection, experiences that only as a reflection of the parent’s achievement, not the child’s. And this moment is fleeting, a moment of correctness and not an affirmation of a core sense of self.
These are most commonly what I see:
- Hypervigilence—These are the “prairie dogs,” forever turning their heads, looking to see who’s judging them, and so consumed by how they appear to others, that they lose touch with inner awareness. They live with chronic embarrassment.
- Living under the radar—These are the people who are always on the verge of disappearing, in the belief that if they don’t declare who they are, take significant action in their lives or state a belief including what they want and don’t want, that there can be no grounds on the part of others to find fault. Procrastination one of their more common practices.
- Fundamentalism—These prefer the scripted life, culled from a rulebook often handed down by their parents, a preference for jobs that require little to no decision making and with expectations and actions that are clearly delineated, and an approach to life that is governed by a black-and-white, mechanistic sense of right and wrong. If you challenge their beliefs, be prepared for a strongly defensive response.
- Apologies in advance—These are the people who live in constant fear of offending others. Growing up in a world of ever-changing, often contradictory expectations, they never knew from one moment to the next what might offend others. “Sorry” is a word commonly found in their vocabulary
- Showing the hand—These are the ones who have just given up. Their life story is marked by perceived failures and poor choices, and now they “show the hand,” turn their backs and walk away, convinced they’ll never learn the magical alchemy of getting it right, at last.
The recovering imperfectionist
Regardless of how perfectionism affects us, the cost not only to us but to the world is significant. The world moves forward powered by those who take calculated risks, who embrace the gifts of their unique selves and offer them in a way the world can benefit from. Along this Hero’s Journey (or Hera), there will be failures and setbacks, but one’s humility and resilience, as well as persistence, ultimately bear fruit in a way that is often, delightfully, unpredictable.
For the recovering perfectionist, this means:
- Learning to see not only threat, but opportunity, and even beauty, in the world around them. To feel safe, often, in this world because they now have the confidence to manage actual threat when it does occur…and for the rest, to enjoy and engage.
- Showing up, and declaring who you are, what you believe, and what you desire. If others disagree with you or even judge you, you have the strength and skills now to address this respectfully. And you discover something wonderful when you at last agree to be seen: the people who do align with you, or desire to contribute, can now find you and lend you their support.
- Embracing improv! I’m amazed at how many of my clients in recovery do just this: join an improv group. Getting out of your script, and not only letting life surprise you but coming up with your own words will absolutely make you feel like a crazy person to start with. And yes, you may fumble in your communication in the beginning. With practice, though, you will improve. In embracing your spontaneity, you will discover a source for vitality that is its own antidote to depression.
- Learning from your mistakes and accepting feedback on your never-ending quest to know more about how to do better and be more loving.
- Trusting others to let you know if they’ve been offended. Trusting others to be stronger than the people who raised you. Trusting that if others are easily offended, it’s about them. Recovering your sensitivity to others from the constant apologies that have hijacked it, you can now use it to tune into them more accurately, and, oh yes, bring yourself into the mix. You get to say “ouch” too!
- Courageously standing your ground when either offended or believing you’ve done so. You learn how to repair the rupture, to believe others care enough to apologize and make it right, and to allow you to do the same.
Scrambling up that cliff after the realization of what I’d said about not being perfect enough, I made less careful choices. Others had summited before me, some of them making odd choices and needing to retrace their steps, or needing the person on belay, holding the rope taught against their occasional slips. Imperfectly, eventually, all but one made it. And exulted, as I did. Sooner or later, if you decide to overcome perfectionism, you will make friends with the messiness of life. Perhaps, you will even decide to jump in, and get a little messy yourself. This is not chaos, and far from being overwhelmed, your stronger, more well-regulated nervous system can enjoy being the calm at the center of the storm, even if the storm is of your own making (any of you parents?).
While the cliff left a scuff on the floor of my perception, another experience years later tilted that floor 90 degrees. It’s the time I learned to “dance ugly.”
It’s 1994, I’m new to Austin and failing in all directions. Austin has not immediately succumbed to my brilliance, celebrated in Durango by public speaking to hundreds at rallies and award ceremonies fighting for Gay and Lesbian rights and by advocacy for keeping children safe from abuse. I enter a hall where young, thin dancers swirl about each other, bending like willows to Gabrielle Roth’s Five Rythms. Unacknowledged, my stiff body attempts a mimic and accomplishes a mock of their grace. I hate them. In fury, I rebel, now dancing ugly, defying the years of ballet training—its own exercise in a never-satisfied quest for the perfect leap or pirouette—with angular twists, thrusting an elbow this way, martialing my legs to kick, sticking my butt out. The fury in my chest burns, then casts light. Suddenly, I realize I am delighting in my grotesqueness. The mirrors lining one wall catch me laughing as I dance with the vaudevillian reflected back at me. I turn. Somehow, all those stuck-up dancers have been replaced, and now each move I see is sweet, inviting; these are gentle, playful people. My body pulls towards their invitation; my forearm and that of another’s now weaving, exploring a way of flowing together. Eyes meet and do not look away. Leaning back, I slow-tumble over the body braced behind me and then, in turn, table my arms and legs firmly to support his weight. In my heart there is only glow, and tears push up to warm my face. My spirit extends in all directions and everywhere finds…companions.
Ultimately, I ask myself as a therapist not only what will serve my clients, so they can learn to love their inner world, but what they can bring out and into the world, to make this hopelessly imperfect blue sphere a glorious adventure instead of a trial. It seems ironic that perfection, far from promoting a better world, constricts us against the actions required to make it so. In learning, instead, to connect in a healthy and durable way with others, we find the belay we need to take the risks that imperfection allows us. It is this ability to connect, within and without, as well as turning down the voice of judgment, that leads us to a life worth living. I wish that for all of you.