Exposing Perfectionism, It’s not about the details

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had never thought of myself as a perfectionist. The picture of “perfect” in my mind included beautiful, charming, brilliant women. They had impressive hardworking, dashing husbands who adored them. Dual careers full of hard-won victories – yet, still time for the children, and family vacations. That certainly wasn’t my life. I felt far from perfect. More of a misfit in my mind, I made crazy mistakes and seemed to be a magnet for bizarre situations and eccentric characters.

One day, a long-time friend casually said to me after a party I had planned, “It was so beautiful, but then you’ve always been a perfectionist.” I was shocked. Me? Not possible.

What most of us don’t realize about perfectionism is that it isn’t a focus on ourselves. It is a focus on others and what they might think of us. It’s about fear of failure and rejection and it’s about shame. Many women who struggle with perfection have low self-esteem (self-worth); they may even doubt their abilities (self-confidence). But that isn’t apparent because these women may seem perfect to the outside world. Paradoxically, this makes it harder for them to feel okay on the inside. They are working hard to hide their shame with impossible standards.  The perfectionist can probably achieve 10 amazing things before breakfast, but she is still disappointed in herself. She rarely feels received, even when she has been.

The perfectionist focuses on what she can do because she doesn’t feel good about who she is.

For years I felt depleted and disillusioned, and could never see the point of getting up again and again after being knocked down. And yet I was driven to do so. I wanted to accomplish something so that I would have value. Things turned around when I discovered self-compassion. One day something snapped. In the midst of a particularly painful experience, I saw myself from outside my identification. I saw myself as if I was looking from someone else’s perspective, and I felt empathy for the pain I witnessed. That was the turning point, though it took many years for me to understand how to replicate that experience, and then how to live from that understanding.

I had to learn to speak more gently to myself, to find creative ways to soften the hard knocks of life. I became vigilant about listening for the inner critic, and soothing myself instead. I paced myself, incrementally confronting the pain I experienced to avoid overwhelm. In short, I had to learn to show up for myself all the time. Having empathy for myself helped me to see how much other women were suffering.

Now I share my insights with my clients and help them discover self-compassion for themselves. I’ve been there, and I understand that the perfectionist often feels very alone. www.truth-seed.com

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