Reflections of a Recovering Perfectionist

It’s 6:00 a.m. and I’m waking up to the alarm going off…the first thought through my head is crap, I didn’t get enough sleep I’m so tired. The second thought, frig, I don’t have enough time to get ready because I hit the loose button (also known as the snooze button). The day goes on and a talk I presented receives some positive comments but is sandwiched with constructive criticism. All I heard was the criticism and so I tell myself I did a terrible job because I didn’t work hard enough. I have some emails to send out and I pour over them for proper spelling, grammar and content so it takes 3x as long as it should to send a short email because it has to be perfect. I get home and my wife asks me if I took care of the one simple task she had asked me to do, but I forgot because I was so busy worrying about myself.

This is the PG version of the self-talk that ruminated in my head for days after.

We would never talk to our friends or our kids the way we talk to ourselves, but it’s okay because it’s just in our head and no one else hears it right? Wrong!

Your thoughts become things and for a long time I have been caught in this tailspin of beating myself up over not being perfect. Well I hate to break it to you but no one is perfect…we have all heard this, but I guess I thought I was different. Needless to say I was hurting bad from the shame I felt from making mistakes. I believed if I screwed up it meant I needed to work harder and that I didn’t deserve to be happy because of my mistakes.

I was so caught up in trying to appear perfect that I was crumbling on the inside. Everyday it was another problem that I struggled to overcome and it was always my fault because I wasn’t doing enough. This is a very self-centered way of looking at the world, as I believed that all the problems people in my life were facing were caused by something I either did or didn’t do. I was being inauthentic and that is exhausting.

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are’ (Brene Brown). This authenticity thing is what I craved deeply. So, I spent hours every week walking in nature trying to discover my true self. I have read tons of books on self-help and had countless counseling sessions with my wife, mentors and psychotherapist. The accumulation of all of these things allowed me to start letting go of who the preachers, teachers, parents, media and social institutions told me I was supposed to be… It was like the weight of the world was slowly being lifted off my shoulders.

So after years of self inflicted pain and suffering, I began to experience life the way it was designed to be. I stopped practicing all of the numbing behaviours I was caught up in…alcohol, sugar, TV and Facebook. There is a full spectrum of human emotions that we are designed to experience and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. While I was taking the edge off of the pain and vulnerability, I was also decreasing my ability to experience joy.

Leonard Cohen said it beautifully, ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ Many people such as myself run around trying to patch all of the cracks to make everything look just right. But for what? To protect the world from finding out the truth, that we are imperfect. This line helps me remember that we are all cracked and these imperfections are not our inadequacies, they are reminders that we are all in this together. Imperfectly, but together.

The switch for me has been to focus on present time consciousness or living in the moment. The goal is just to be. The past or future does not matter, and this is a tough concept for someone who was always trying to be prepared for anything life threw at him – you know, the Cub Scout motto. What I realized is I was trying to prevent future hurt and pain, but in doing so I was not allowing myself to experience emotions like joy. If I didn’t get overly excited, I believed I couldn’t lose that excitement or feel emotions like loss or sadness. Watching my little baby girl play and experience the world has been my best teacher on living in the present. I love her so much.

Reflecting back I have come a long way, but there is still a long road ahead. It takes practicing courage, compassion and connection in my daily life to cultivate enough self-worth to be authentically me. We often associate courage with being heroic, but it is also defined as, ‘Speaking one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ I believe there is nothing more heroic than wearing your heart on your sleeve because it leaves you vulnerable and open to criticism and that can be scary. Although at times I feel uncomfortable speaking from the heart, being vulnerable has lead to deeper connections with people in my life and connections are what we as humans live for.

So my best advice, start to let go of what you think you’re supposed to be and start following your passions. If you make a mistake, forgive yourself using kind words and move on. Forgive those around you because people are going to make judgments, but people are inherently good and are never trying to hurt you. To be authentically yourself can be scary because there is no one else like you, but it is only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness that we will discover the infinite power of our light.

Dr. Thom

 

If you are looking for some good reading check out:

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky