Here’s the second article in my May perfectionism series. You can read the first one here. And there’s plenty more on this site about perfectionism — just check the “categories” listing on the right.
Sometimes — often — I get into a space of confusion where I’m aware that a rather ugly shift has occurred, but I’m not sure why.
It’s when I’ve been doing something I’m really excited about — something, like writing, that may be hard and challenging, but it’s also energizing because it feels like I’m doing what I’m meant to do. I’m humming along, excited, full of enthusiasm, with a feeling of deep rightness. Or maybe I’m just feeling pretty okay. It’s going well. Well enough.
And then: the shift. Something starts to nag at me. I feel a tightness in my head, my chest. I notice I’m tired. I notice I’m a little angry. Suddenly, that feeling of deep rightness is gone and in its place is fatigue, a bad mood, depletion.
When this used to “happen to me,” I thought it was because I was just moody. I thought it was because I was emotionally unstable. I thought it was because I was doing something wrong.
Now, I know it’s because perfectionism has taken over. Without my awareness, I’ve shifted from the challenge and joy of the aims of my inner enthusiast, to the futile agenda of my inner perfectionist.
The truth is, I don’t “suddenly” shift from a space of enthusiasm and energy to Suckville. There are some “middlemen” that I typically don’t notice because they’re so subtle and automatic. Those middlemen are: 1) my physical sensations and 2) my thoughts.
“The shift” happened to me last night. I was at my computer working on something with my cat in my lap, feeling content, peaceful, energized. Everything was humming along; for about an hour or so, I was in a pretty blissful place.
And then: I started to get a little bit sleepy. That was all. Just a little sign from my body that it was beginning to be time to call it a night. (Middleman #1 — physical sensation.)
Not a problem, right? I’d put in a good hour of work (and it’s unusual for me to get much done in the evening anyway, so this was a plus after a day that had been pretty “productive” already.)
However, when I started feeling physically tired, my mind spewed out the following thoughts: You’ll never get anywhere if you always stop when you’re tired. You know tomorrow is a busy day and you won’t have the evening free to work. Why don’t you ever have the energy to make a real dent in the important stuff? You really need to push yourself to do more. (Middleman #2 — my thoughts.)
This was just a sampling of my thoughts — there were probably dozens triggered by the simple fact that my body was ready to call it a day and my inner perfectionist, a.k.a. that part of me that believes I’m not enough and I must constantly prove myself by doing more, wasn’t having it.
Last night, I was able to catch the poor little inner perfectionist and assure her that we’d done more than enough for the day and she was going to have to take a nap, which she badly needed. Sometimes, I don’t catch onto her as quickly. I believe she is telling me the truth. I push myself to do more and more, and I burn out.
The aims of my inner enthusiast feel inspiring, expansive. They challenge me, open me up, make me feel “greater than” I was before. The aims of my inner perfectionist feel like a clamping down. They tighten and close me. They make me feel “less than.” They may look like valuable ideals that are meant to get me to a better place (this is the tricky part), but the truth is in how they feel.
During my life coach training, Martha Beck liked to remind us, “You can tell it’s enlightenment because it tastes of freedom.” The pursuits of my inner enthusiast ultimately feel like freedom — even when they’re challenging as hell. The agenda of my inner perfectionist feels like punishment — even when it looks good on paper, even when it looks awfully appealing to my “social self.”
Saying “enough for now” does not mean my inner enthusiast won’t propel me toward my dreams again tomorrow.
I’d love to hear from you. How do you know when you’re in the grip of perfectionism? And how do you move out of it?
For more on this topic, check out my article on how to tell if you’re stretching or pushing yourself, here.