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Perfection can Inspire us to a goal, or be a demon in our head that makes us suffer.
The Perfectionist is one of the voices in our head. It has the role of pointing out all the ways that we should be perfect, better or different than we are. As a secondary role it also points out how other people should be as well. It might seem very helpful with high ideals and standards, and it might seem very noble with its authoritative voice of “knowing”, but it has a dark side. It can make us miserably unhappy, feel inadequate, and even invoke emotions of self hate and depression. So with that much at stake it’s best not to leave these goings on in our unconscious.
The dark side of the perfectionist is that we are always left feeling inadequate. Or, in its secondary role, when we believe what it says about others and end up disappointed, frustrated, or angry. We often don’t see this darker emotional role because we are focused on achieving that elusive standard of perfectionism. If we stop chasing that standard for a few minutes we can see some how wrong the Perfectionist is.
The Perfectionist is full of false beliefs and lies that we are trying to appease.
Perfection looks like the solution that will make us feel better. If we achieve it, we will avoid the harsh Inner Critic of the Judge. But the bar the Perfectionist puts up there isn’t what we should be striving for. It is a contest that has us set up to fail.
The concept of Perfection over so many years has become intertwined with the narrative of the Judge. The Judge’s use of the standard of Perfection is far more common than how we would use it, or in a way that it is used in our psyche for a helpful purpose. Getting things perfect, or even good enough is synonymous with the Judge’s criticisms and feeling inadequate. The same is true for related ideas of “good enough”, “right”, “Better”, “supposed to”, “success”, “should”, “Fair”, etc. All these ideas illicit some feelings of unworthiness, frustration, disappointment, and failure.
The Judge is likely to be using these terms against your emotional body more than they are being used in a way that helps you to be happy in the world. The same is true for all the terms that are the opposite, “imperfect, not good enough, wrong, worse, etc.
You can notice how much this game is rigged by counting the number of times the Perfectionist and Judge congratulate you on how great you were. If you can’t think of any times that happened, then you get my point. They always use their standards to induce unworthiness and inadequacy feelings and that makes them a problem not a helper or keeper of some great goal to achieve.
Perfection, or even just the idea of something like it is a beautiful creation in your imagination. However, the perfectionist version is not generally based in reality and shouldn’t be used to judge what we do in the real world. Use it as a goal you strive for, but don’t use it as a measuring standard.
The challenge in awareness is to be present with that idealized perfectionist version as a goal in the imagination and be aware that what we create in imagination does not transfer immediately or easily to the world of reality. Creating beauty in the real world takes practice. With an awareness of the difference between the imagined world and the real world we can avoid the Judge’s misplaced criticism that expects the two to be congruent.
- Take something you do. It could be build something in your garage, sing a song, dance, or a project at work. Take a moment and imagine that you did it perfectly. Great. You just used your imagination to flash on an imaginary performance. It probably took you a few seconds. Now consider how long it really takes to do that activity. Playing a song would take you 3-4 minutes. Getting to your ideal weight might take several months. A “perfect” work out at the gym might be 30-60 minutes. You can imagine being “there” in the imagination in only seconds but in real life that same thing takes 100 to 100,000 times as long. That is a clue how far removed your imagined version of perfection is from real perfection. Your imagined version is seen finished instantly.
2 Now imagine doing the whole song, work out, or project perfectly in actual time. Imagine playing or singing every note of the song. Imagine building that work project in the garage or at work and it happening perfectly. (no, I don’t expect you will do this but try doing it for 3 minutes) If you just imagine doing it for a few minutes you will likely notice something interesting. Your imagination, right where the Perfectionist can direct the whole show, can’t imagine doing it perfectly. Your imagination wanders.
Your mind will jump around, lose track of where you were in the project, forget something, retrace a step, or get distracted on to something else. In the previous exercise, where you spent 3-4 seconds imagining it “perfectly” you really imagined it in a really distorted way. You only had a symbolic idea of perfect. You can see that really focusing your attention can be a challenge. It also shows you that your Perfectionist isn’t even a Perfectionist in it’s imaginary world. He’s just pretending about that. This awareness can also help take away some of the authority we unknowingly give him.
The other place where your Perfectionist gets it wrong in the real world is in the instantaneous results. If I take a dance class and I watch the instructor demonstrate a move, my mind can intellectually say, “I got it.” Now, what I have is the intellectual idea of what the instructor did. To really “get it” I’ve got to take the idea of what my mind saw and train my muscles and nervous system to move that way with the timing of the music with a dance partner. That is much more than an idea. It is work. It takes multiple iterations to get my “idea” integrated into my unconscious memory, nervous system, and muscles, so that the dance move is automatic. If I practice 10 or 20 times I might get it, as long as I’m not also trying to learn other things at the same time or too complicated. Then there is the issue that I may not remember that move next week at the same class.
Your perfectionist lives in an imaginary world where it is possible for you to do things perfectly without any trial and error or practice. Actually, your perfectionist not only thinks that it is possible, but that you are supposed to do things perfectly without any practice. It thinks you live in the imaginary world also, but you don’t live in an imaginary world. If you develop awareness and mindfulness of these two separate worlds you can eliminate a lot of unhappiness from your life.
One of the consequences of these delusional “Perfectionists” expectations is that if we aren’t aware and skeptical of it, we succumb to the next character of the story in our internal dialog. If we accept the Perfectionists imaginary standard, then we fall to accept the Judges criticism for not meeting them as well.
Then one of two things happen. We attempt the dance move, song, or work project. It goes in accordance with reality, which requires some trial and error to get it right. This doesn’t meet the perfectionist standard and so the Judge has a harsh internal dialog of criticism for us about how we are a failure, can’t do things well enough, and that other people must think we are incompetent, etc. From this harsh self-criticism we suffer emotionally.
In the second scenario we have some awareness, that this harsh criticism and emotional crap will be generated by our belief system if we try to do something. So we unconsciously employ an avoidance strategy. We procrastinate any attempt or work on the project. Procrastination is one way to avoid self judgment. If you don’t try, your Judge can’t make you feel unworthy for not being “perfect.” Or we avoid doing it all together often with a false justification like, “I’m not good at that.” Or “I don’t feel like it right now.”
But I think the real thing that is failing us here is the Perfectionist. It is failing to give us the space to learn, grow, practice and develop skills to get better. The Perfectionist is living in an imaginary world where things happen without time and without effort or practice and come out perfectly. It is failing to be aware that we live in a real one where our nervous system takes time to learn things and we have distractions in our life. Our failure is in awareness when we don’t notice that the separation between the imaginary one and the real one and try to merge the two. The “Perfectionist” is going to fail at this distinction but we don’t have to.
Baseball players swing at pitches and miss. Golfers hit shots into sand bunkers. Basketball players miss shots, including free throws when no one is guarding them, they still miss. These are the best in the world and paid millions of dollars, and they still live in world of reality where they practice, develop skills over years, and play for percentages not perfection.
The next time your Judge and Perfectionist want to give you a hard time for failing to meet their standards. Consider that they are failing you. They are failing to notice that their imaginary world doesn’t map to the real world.
If you find it difficult to be aware and skeptical of the Perfectionist and Inner Critic, this is understandable. Awareness and skepticism are mindfulness skills to be developed with practice and time. You can find helpful exercises to practice in the Self Mastery course.3