Breakup With Perfectionism

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I’ve been in a long-term relationship with perfectionism, but I didn’t know it until fairly recently.  I generally expect to be able to handle everything fairly well (ok – perfectly) and I have a tendency to beat myself up and cause all kinds of suffering for myself when I fall short of this unattainable bar.

If you have any experience with perfectionism, you know what I’m talking about.  Perfectionism can be absolutely insidious as the self-judgment is unending.

Looking back, I can see now that my self-expectation of perfection was very much present in my first jobs after college when I was working in Human Resources.  When difficult situations arose, and I deemed that I hadn’t handled something “perfectly” I would replay the scene over and over in my head at night to see what I could/should have done differently.  This caused a tremendous amount of stress, and I’m sure was terribly boring for friends and family who had to listen to me. I didn’t recognize all this as perfectionism. I thought it just how I was, and I assumed that everyone obsessed the same way I did.

I left my corporate gig six years ago and in my role as an external coach, these kinds of issues essentially went away, until this spring when I encountered some fairly complex business situations that I’d never had to deal with before.  And while I handled these situations ok, it definitely wasn’t “perfect”. And (this time – finally!) I saw just how much internal dialogue I devoted to beating myself up over the situation.

When perfectionism is in the mix, the inner dialogue goes way beyond what is useful.  I talked with my mentor coach and learned what I could from the situation, and made plans for how to avoid it in the future.  I practiced loving-kindness meditation, and worked on showing compassion for myself. The situation began to fade to the background of my consciousness. But inside, that inner perfectionist voice was still whispering away.

Then last week I had a dream.  I had a dream that I broke up with my “boyfriend” of 14 years because he hit me.  Physically hit me. Something I would never stand for in my dream-life or in my awake-life.  So in the dream I broke up with him.

Usually my dreams fade upon waking, but this one stayed with me.  It began to make sense while I was meditating over the weekend. I remembered what my mentor coach said about dreams.  She said that the people in our dreams are representative of aspects of ourselves. And then the light bulb went on! All of a sudden I saw that I had FINALLY “broken up” with that aspect of myself that beats myself up when I fall short of the (unrealistic) expectations I have for myself.  Wow!

I’ve been sitting with this idea for a couple of days now and it’s really growing on me. And while I worry that this “boyfriend” is going to try to weasel his way back into my life…bringing flowers and (initially) saying nice things, now that I’ve “broken up” with him I feel confident that I’ll be able to say “buzz off!” if and when he shows up on my doorstep.

We all have internal dialogue that is helpful, and some that is hurtful.  When we increase awareness of these internal conversations we can more easily discern between the truth and a story we’re telling ourselves.  Then we can redirect our attention toward the contribution we’re uniquely here to make. On this journey of understanding my tendency toward perfectionism, I found Brene Brown’s work, studying the Enneagram (especially type 1), and working with a coach all helped me see this pattern more clearly.  Having a practice of self-compassion was essential, too.

Nancy Larocca Hedley