Wouldn’t it be great if life were perfect? Wouldn’t it be great if you were perfect? Of course it would. But we all kind of know it isn’t and we will never be, yet somehow Perfectionism still has the most extraordinary hold over us.
Psychologists talk about Perfectionism becoming embedded in the ego, either as something that we build ourselves as a defence against anxiety or as an internalisation of harsh standards to which we were held as children.
Yet Perfectionism can only work if we meet it half way, if we agree to live by its rules, if we internalise its impossible standards that actually choke our potential.
Perfectionism is the voice that whispers in our ear, ‘They wouldn’t want you’, ‘You can’t wear that – not with your upper arms’ or ‘You can’t do that, you know.’ Perfectionism maintains its grip by murmuring that it has our best interests at heart. ‘Where would you be without me?’ It asks. ‘Release me and see how fast everything goes to hell in a handcart. Everything will unravel, fall apart.’
Perfectionism plays out in the strangest ways. It insists that we can do something until we are totally proficient at it. We can’t pick up a paintbrush until we can paint. We can’t join a choir until we can sing. We can’t write until we have already produced a best seller.
If we make a mistake, Perfectionism insists that we punish ourselves horrifically. The sentences that Perfectionism deals out wouldn’t get past the Geneva convention. They break Human Rights legislation. We also act as self appointed Hanging Judge and Juries when others make mistakes or don’t live up to our expectations. Perfectionism goads us into being tyrants.
When you look at it like that, in black and white, you know it’s kind of nuts, but it’s amazing how many of us would get so much joy out of doing something and refuse ourselves the chance to do it because we aren’t perfect.
Many years ago when I was undergoing my training in psychotherapy, I put my hand up at a seminar to ask a question and began, ‘I don’t understand…’ Before I could even finish my question, the tutor said bluntly, ‘It will be very good for you to not understand.’ and moved on to someone else.
I was absolutely furious. This smug, smart idiot who had humiliated me in public, who was so cavalier about his responsibilities as a teacher. I’d paid my course fees. I had a right to ask and he had a responsibility to answer.
Except his utterly intuitive response went right to the core of something that I needed to address. I was riddled with Perfectionism. Always a straight A student, always streets ahead, always the one with the answer. Even through the Tsunami of my rage at his response, I could hear a small inner voice saying, ‘He’s right.’ I needed to flounder in not understanding, in being confused, in not having it all sewn up and down pat. I needed to be able to experience not having all the answers and still having to do my best. To feel like an idiot in public and know that it wouldn’t kill me. I needed the liberation of being able to say, ‘I don’t know’ and still feel that I was all right as I was and that what I did was good enough.
That tutor knew exactly what he was doing. I didn’t need to know more stuff. I needed to learn how to be imperfect and okay.
When I went on to work as a hypno-psychotherapist, when clients sat in the chair and revealed their shortcomings, failures and flaws, I would listen and watch and observe how they had effectively held themselves in prisons for years for the most minor crimes. When they had finished I would look at me anxiously, waiting for the verdict. I would sigh and shake my head and say, ‘It may come as a terrible shock, but I regret to tell you that you are totally normal. But if we handle this right, you still might be able to go on and live a full life.’
Sometimes, that was all I needed to do to break the spell and help them find the keys to the prison door and set themselves free.
Traditionally, Persian carpets have flaws woven into their intricate designs to remind us that only the divine is perfect. We are all a little like that; a mixture of artistry, effort, superb design, unique execution and a few imperfections. We are all works in progress. None of us are perfect. We are all good enough and extraordinary in our own unique ways.
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