The Perfectionist: A Fantasy We Just Can’t Let Go Of?
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
In this Healing Chronic Illness blog series, author, Gupta Program Coach and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome survivor Jen Evans shares insights from the recovery journey
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of Perfection is, “the quality or state of being perfect, such as: freedom from fault or defect; flawlessness; maturity; the quality or state of being saintly”.
Wow, the state of being ‘saintly’. The perfectionist part of us is asking for quite a lot huh?! No wonder that part may be driving us into the ground, exhausting us with the stress and strain of attaining a faultless state that would make us almost peerless.
However, we may have learnt along the way, or always knew logically, that ‘perfect’ does not exist - that it is an unachievable state that is illogical and self-defeating to pursue. Brene Brown says, “Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from taking flight.”
So why do we still have a ‘perfectionist’ part, pushing us, criticising us, dissatisfied with all we do and don’t do in life? If we know it's not something we need to, or can, pursue to gain happiness and health, why does it still persist?
I learnt on the healing journey that perfect was a fantasy, and a much-wanted state that paralysed me through life. Pursuing perfection exhausted me, caused me to hurt and judge others, and ended in defeat and self-loathing. It also stopped me from starting the things that I truly wanted to do, experience and achieve; the terrifying idea that I might not be able to do them perfectly stopped me from even trying.
As Brene Brown says in her illuminating book on authenticity and perfection, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 2010).
But even when I had learnt the very relieving ideas that perfectionism was an imaginary state that can actually stop us from achieving our goals and dreams, I was still plagued by the part of me that wanted things to be perfect, wanted me to be perfect, and wanted others to be perfect too.
That part was completely unwilling to listen to ‘reason’ and take on this new wise information. It wanted to keep the old ideals and behaviours. It still wanted to try for perfection and achievement in every action. Why?
If I am perfect then I stand out. If I am perfect then I am above reproach, out of reach of criticism and rejection. If I am perfect I will be praised and attended, respected and supported. I will be untouchable. I will be safe. Perfection sets me aside from all the others and gives me a forcefield of protection, and a magnet for attention and love. I want to be a saint. I want to be SOMEONE.
That’s what the part said when I communicated with it. That part of me was so protective of a buried hurt part of me, a part who was deeply neglected, unloved, unseen and unheard, that the perfectionist protector came along to extract a sense of self, of worth and identity. The perfectionist did everything it could to make me feel like I am someone.
Without a realistic and powerful alternative to gaining this sense of self, worth and identity, the perfectionist part that I met within myself (over and over again) was unwilling to change and relinquish its behaviour. That behaviour brought me stress, isolation and failure, feeding physical illness as a result of the constant stress and strain. So what did I do?
I worked through the trauma and conditioning that I was living from and repeatedly returned to my true sense of self and innate worth. Over time this released the perfectionist part from its job of trying to let me feel like somebody over feeling like nobody, nothing.
I taught the perfectionist over and over that there were other healthy, joyous, constructive ways to connect with my true self and a feeling that no matter what I do, don't do, am or am not, I am safe, I am worthy and I am free. No one has the power to define my worth, so no amount of achieving and perfecting and impressing and trying to rise above rejection would ever actually work. Because my worth and safety can only ever come from within myself, how I feel about myself and how I chose to express that.
The perfectionist can then become a good friend, a guide towards excellence and motivation to achieve goals. It no longer flogs me daily to achieve something to feel worthy to be alive. No one wins from that. Doing things because I love them, and am more relaxed about the outcome, gave me back my life to explore, play, learn, achieve and stay present.
Perfectionism was a protective part that I deeply believed I needed to hold on to survive. But it was like choosing to hold on to the circling shark when I was drowning, rather than the lifeboat right next to it; in a blind panic, it seemed like the only thing I could do, until my eyes were opened to the safer, life-saving choice available to me. That choice is available to you too. May you find all the support you need on the way to making it.
For guidance and practice working with the perfectionist part using the Gupta Program tools, join me for a one-off 90 minute workshop on 9th December 2021, Working with the Perfectionist Part.