Perfectionism Sucks (The Life Out Of You)
Years ago, back before I was obsessed with helping other people change their lives, I was pretty much a big fat mess myself. What is now my professional playground used to be my personal hell, but I know too many now-masterful teachers who first trained for their “area of expertise” in the gardens of their own lives. This is no accident. Growing into this role in this way lends itself to volumes of both compassion and practical problem-solving experience, and I’m grateful for those powerful tools.
My clients and students (and readers for that matter) often feel quite alone in their “struggles,” as if they are the only people in the world feeling this way and having these experiences. They come to my place feeling lost, overwhelmed, or invisible, and positively certain that they are, somehow, differently screwed up, and far more so than everyone else. It’s actually quite comical. We all think we are so special, even in our dysfunction. You’d think we could make that work for us.
Many who sign up for the clutter-clearing program, in particular, come in feeling downright ashamed. And it doesn’t seem to matter if they are living in homes that haven’t been open to guests for years, or if their home regularly hosts parties and travelers… who are forbidden from entering the master bedroom or attic or office or wherever else is stuffed to the brim with all of “the stuff,” the evidence that one is, in fact, stuck. They are artists and teachers, executives and real estate agents, stay-at-home moms and empty-nesters, retired folks and inspired young people, and literally, everybody in between. They are fabulous people who are finally sick of being stuck and without a clue as to what lies ahead, so they come together to make a change. (Can you tell I’m their biggest fan?)
I’ve noticed two tremendously freeing experiences that occur every single time a new round of classes begin. They are rather sacred epiphanies that, to be honest, I never dare to attempt to craft. They simply unfold, month after month, and I’m blessed enough to be a part of the magic as it changes everyone involved. Today, I heard that these treasures may be of value to those of you whose paths haven’t yet entered the groovy little garden of Seeds and Weeds Coaching.
The first key to freedom is the completely unexpected discovery that there are five or ten or twenty or fifty people who, just like you, have homes and/or lives that have become unruly enough to warrant paying for something called a Sick of Being Stuck class. Most of them are genuinely stunned to see that other intelligent, loving, functional people are in the same position. It is so easy to believe that we are the broken ones and that everyone else has it all together, but that’s simply untrue.
Think about your own life and you can probably find at least one area where this false sense of isolation is familiar. What is the area of your life where reality isn’t as you always hoped it would be? How do you deal with that situation? Is it all out front for the world to see, or do you keep it to yourself? It seems like most of us, at least until it gets out of hand enough to make us desperate, have the impulse to slip into secret-keeping.
If you are overweight, are you openly exploring your relationship with food and movement or is this the great unspoken battle in your world? If your marriage or partnership feels rocky, do you speak with your mate about your concerns? Are you working with a therapist or coach, or at least reading something that might support you? Probably not. And when stuck in that secrecy, we are practically incapable of making a change. But find the courage to reach out for support, and you’ll see that you are not alone, and the chains of impossibility will fall away.
If you are a writer or musician or artist whose inspiration seems to have fled the scene, have you been willing to admit to yourself that’s even happening? Are you doing the things that you know keep you in the zone? If you’ve relapsed, do the people who love you, your support system, know that you are using whatever you’re using again? Sharing truly does make all the difference in the world. Reaching out to a (healthy) community is going to cultivate far more success for you than the empty threat of embarrassment can cost.
The second key to freedom, which I believe in the long run is the more powerful of the two, is the realization that, regardless of how not perfect one’s environment may appear, perfectionism is largely responsible for their paralysis. Once someone cracks open the door on the perfectionism conversation, I sometimes ask, “Does anyone here ever find it hard to wash the dishes because you don’t have enough time to clean the baseboards?” I’ve never had to explain what that means to people in my clutter-clearing classes.
When there are dishes piled up in a kitchen belonging to someone with perfectionistic tendencies, they don’t just see dishes. They see the dirty dishes that need to be rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher, pots and pans to be washed by hand, sinks that need to be scrubbed, and cabinet doors that need to be wiped down. The cabinet doors remind them that the cabinets are cluttered and disorganized and need to be addressed, which reminds them about the science-experiment-caliber situation brewing in the produce drawer in the fridge. This leaves them feeling a little weak in the knees, almost defeated, so they plop down on the floor and… yes, you guessed it… they bust out the cake.
Let’s face it, nobody ever stumbles upon a kitchen disaster like that when their schedule for the next six or so hours just happens to be wide open. Perfectionists are paralyzed by all that they see (and feel in their bodies). They are driven to the edge of the overwhelm cliff and dropped off, and instead of starting the journey ahead, they freak out about how far they are from where they want to be. The voice in their head says, “I’ll do this a little later, when I have more time,” or “Yuck, I can’t deal with this… I wonder what’s new at Care2 today.”
It comes down to this: “If I can’t get it all done, why even start?”
Obviously, that is self-destructive thinking. If you are willing to believe that little (or perhaps Godzilla-sized) voice in your head, even the most productive day can be derailed in a flash. Perfectionism is the ultimate dead end. It’s all about fear, and we already know that nothing good ever comes from fear.
When I make that connection during a group call, the line is filled with understanding laughter followed by a collective sigh of relief. Then, it seems like there is always that one incredibly brave woman who quietly confesses, “I know that to outsiders, and sometimes even to me, it looks like I don’t care about my house being clean, or my paperwork being organized enough that I can do my job, or that I don’t care that I’m always late, but I really, really do. I care so much. I care about everything. Sometimes, it feels like I care too much… so much I can’t get anything done.”
That is exactly the problem with perfectionism, and it doesn’t matter in what area of your life it shows up, it is completely paralyzing.
Perfectionism is the thing that keeps us from doing anything because we can’t just fly from one mountaintop to another. For those with 40 (or 90 or 200) pounds to lose, it’s the little voice in your head that says, “Oh, forget it. That salad isn’t going to make you skinny, order pizza instead!” And certainly that’s true. One salad isn’t going to get you where you want to go but — just like the steps down into the valley between two mountains — you can’t get from where you are to where you’re going without taking that step.
It has the same paralyzing impact in the other gardens of our lives, too. If we can’t figure out how to finance the whole dream, we never start saving: that’s perfectionism. It’s the same thing that keeps us from practicing our guitars and doing yoga and picking up a paintbrush… If I can’t do it “right,” why bother?
If we break that down, what it really means is: I’m afraid to fail, so I’m not going to try.
That’s perfectionism, and it sucks. It’s time for us to find another way to get from where we are to where we want to be. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that this twisted up thinking can be… resistant to the idea of being unraveled. In general, it’s not the kind of thing that we just walk away from. Instead, we pick here and and pull there, separating out one little piece at a time, clearing up our thinking along the way. Every time we choose to take action, that’s one step toward what we want that will never have to be taken again. That one step isn’t the only thing that matters in the journey from here to there but it absolutely matters. In fact, you can’t get there without it.
What are those steps in the overwhelming journey ahead of you? It’s not one big thing, but a series of dozens or hundreds or thousands. Take a moment, right now, to write down as many of the little things that you already know you will need to do to cultivate the change you desire. (Not all the things, dear formerly-perfectionist friend, just the ones you can see right now.)
Now, instead of trying to fly from here to there in one impossible trip, pick and choose from that list as you journey through the days ahead – choose water instead of diet soda for lunch today, brew your own coffee and use your fancy coffee money to open a savings account for that trip, or spend a couple of minutes sucking at guitar.
That’s how you turn perfectionism around; one small, crafty, loving action at a time. Try it, you’ll see.
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