How My Perfectionist Became My Personal Assistant
For years I was controlled by the whip of Perfectionism. She kept constant watch, always making sure that I lived up to her impossible standards. No matter the circumstances, I was expected to display not just a hilarious wit, a dazzling intellect and a spotless apartment, but also a perfect figure to boot. If ever I slipped, showing even the slightest sign of needing help, emotional vulnerability, disorderliness or slackness in the maintenance of my body, she would instantly pounce, shaming me back into line. Her chastisement included a repertoire of predictable phrases such as, “swallow that feeling, get over it, clean that up, get your shit together, you don’t need their help or with the way you’re looking, you can’t afford to skip the gym today!” And because she had so thoroughly bewitched me into believing that she was the only way to get what I wanted in life, I faithfully did her biding. I kept my feelings on a short leash, I never relied on anyone but myself, I obsessively watched what I ate, the dishes were always done and I certainly never left the house without mascara.
Inevitably, however, things started to fall through the cracks, and I became more and more aware of a nagging feeling that I was living in a house of cards. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was overwhelmed with trying to hold it all together. As Perfectionism’s promise to grant me all of my supposed desires started to come into question, I noticed that she begin to step up her efforts to maintain her iron grip on me. Without hesitation, she mounted a renewed campaign of manipulation, utilizing some of the most powerful weapons in her arsenal; self-criticism, shame, emotional denial, under-eating and the belief that I needed to exercise constantly. Even though I was still under her spell, thankfully, my faith in her ability to grant me the success and love from others I desired was starting to weaken.
Eventually I sought new counsel in the welcoming world of the self-help revolution and began a feverish exploration of the books and workshops that seemed to offer an answer to my problem. I was excited to learn that I was in possession of a “True Self”, which transcended the tyranny of Perfectionism. I also learned that she was simply just a dysfunctional part of my little self, needing to be released to make space for my authentic Big Self. I was told that with enough self-love, I could be liberated from Perfectionism, free to live my life imperfectly. And initially, that seemed to work. Whenever Perfectionism would try to return, attempting to insinuate herself in my life, I would quickly partner up with my new best friends Self-Acceptance and Compassion and assert my newfound healthy boundaries, refusing to be oppressed by her standards. I was free to stop plucking my eyebrows, let the laundry pile up, leave voice mails unreturned, ask for help and eat cookies when I wanted to (gluten free of course)!
And yet, I started to notice that Perfectionism really disliked being out of a job. Even with my new allies of Self-Acceptance and Compassion, she’d still regularly show up insisting that ultimately I couldn’t do without her services. My attempts at releasing her were more like throwing a boomerang than truly letting go. And, if living up to the standards of Perfectionism was a lot of work, I eventually discovered that relying on self-acceptance every time perfectionism showed up was like working overtime without pay. I was burning out fast and totally over the relentless ping ponging back-and-forth between the insidious siren’s call of Perfectionism and the rhetoric of new age empowerment.
So I started to experiment with relating to her differently. Instead of seeing her as a dysfunctional part of me, needing to be let go of or fixed, I started to inquire about what her intentions were, what she actually cared about. She told me that she cared about Beauty, Cleanliness, Order, Hard Work, Doing Her Best and creating social situations that were inviting to others and facilitated connection. To my surprise, these were all values that I shared as well, things that genuinely enhanced my life, work, and relationships. Ironically, I also realized that in her absence I felt cut off from my ability to enact these values in my life. I began to question whether it was actually necessary to completely rid myself of Perfectionism, or rather, that her methods and strategies for expressing our shared values needed a re-vision.
I started to imagine what my experience would be like living from a value-centered place instead of being the frustrated puppet of misguided Perfectionism. As I continued to envision this new life, I started to reconnect with all of the skills and abilities already at my disposal for creating the life and relationships I wanted. I decided to include Perfectionism in this process by first making her aware of the impact of her previous behavior (the hindering instead of helping, the shaming instead of inspiring) and then, by re-educating her on how she could actually be more effective in supporting me in the expression of our shared values. I informed her that she was receiving a new job title; instead of abusive boss, she would now be my personal assistant, who would be called upon her whenever I encountered a new challenge, an outfit in need of styling, a closet to be organized, a piece of writing needing edits or an evening out with friends lacking sufficient planning. I also decided that she was better paired with Humor, Patience, Relaxation and a more inclusive perspective. My experience of these things actually had a long forgotten history in my life that I could draw from. And this new pairing allowed me to better keep certain knowledges closer to me—the knowledge that context matters, situations change and I'm much better off (and effective) when I listen to the moments I need rest, allow my fears and express the ways I have no clue what to do next. For me, my attempts at "releasing" Perfection also meant disconnecting from the important values that she embodied. Instead, re-visioning her methods, revising her standards and joining her with the support of Humor, Patience and Relaxation, allowed her to have a cherished place in my life that I couldn't imagine being without.
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