The Problem With Perfection

My life didn’t change in one moment. I wish it had been that simple. For me, big changes happen over time in many steps. One particular issue that I needed to change showed up fairly early in my teaching career. I fondly refer to it as the “perfectionist” monster.

During a typical class or coaching session, questions would fall into the usual realm of work and relationships. These were complicated enough, however, in the back of my mind, I imagined the really tough emotional issues showing up one day.  Perhaps a woman had been raped and was working through the trauma of it.  Or, a grieving parent who had lost a child and was looking for peace.  I always thought it best to teach what I had experience in, yet I didn’t have those experiences. Nor was I likely to.

How would I do?  I wanted to have the answers that would help them. I would ponder the right things to say but nothing would suffice.  I would seek inspiration on how to help facilitate such healing, but was met with only silence.

Imagined scenarios would grow tentacle tangents of internal dialogue and grip my mind. “If I couldn’t help this person, then I was failing. That would make me a failure.  Maybe I should get more life experience and practice before I do any more teaching?” These thoughts had my attention distracted in a side story of self doubt and low level fear. It seemed that I could solve the problem if I just stopped teaching. But that wouldn’t really make the thoughts and feelings go away.  Rather, the negative stories would lie dormant waiting to be triggered some other day. I opted to continue teaching while observing this uncomfortable side story about my ability to guide people.

After some weeks of tracking these tentacles, I began a detailed inventory of the beliefs behind the images and thoughts flashing through my mind.  The turning point happened when I detailed the expectations I held for myself as a coach. I expected success and I was surprised to find that “success” had some very specific meanings. I could categorize myself as a success if, after a session, a client was completely healed of their emotional suffering over the issue. If they weren’t transformed, a particular voice in my head judged me as a failure.  It was a nonsensical belief system, and yet it was there poking at my emotions with its scenarios and stories.

I had unconsciously created an Image of Perfection. I don’t know when or how, but I was walking around with it. Perhaps I had acquired it from reading books on personal transformation, or stories of saints performing miracles when I was a kid at church. Who knows?

Like most issues in the subconscious, I didn’t find this fictional expectation immediately.  The voice in my head didn’t say, “Gary this is the fictional image of success we are going to judge you against. If you don’t meet it you will be deemed such a failure that you should give up even trying.” The ego kept expectations of perfection hidden behind doubts and impossible scenarios. Only upon careful scrutiny did I see the comparison and the unrealistic standard my ego was using. In the beginning, I was too busy trying to live up to it by finding brilliant life changing words that might help someone else. In reality, my motivation was more selfish. Apparently I was trying to escape the belief and feeling of failure that my subconscious had constructed.

What is peculiar about an Image of Perfection is that it is nothing but a concept. From one point of view, it can be a source of inspiration, a goal that we become passionate about, and a vision that can inspire us to excel and accomplish great things. From a darker point of view, that same concept can be used as a club by the ego to emotionally beat us down into fear, doubt, and self-sabotaging behavior.  How ironic that my ideal of a teacher was a monster as well.

What I realized was that I was never going to be “good enough” to meet that Image of Perfection. It was an unfair comparison to a fantasy scenario. It would have been unfair to hold other people to that expectation and so it was unfair to hold myself to it also. With awareness of it as fantasy, the stories of judgment, fear, and doubt lost credibility and began falling apart. I no longer felt the pressure to be the perfect coach or teacher.  I stopped imagining and fearing challenging scenarios or needing to come up with perfect words.

The common sense truth is that emotional hurt and grief don’t get transformed in an hour just because of well-spoken words. I didn’t know of any words that would magically alleviate emotional pain and suffering, because there aren’t any. I did know that I could be supportive and compassionate, while helping people work through their false beliefs and unrealistic expectations the same way I did.  I decided that was my best, and my best was enough. It wasn’t the lofty self-image the ego was trying to mold.  But it was one that was realistic, and allowed my mind to be at peace, and me to be happy.

For Practical steps for change, check out the free sessions of the Self Mastery Course

Gary van Warmerdam