How to tell if perfectionism is running the show

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.

To Create or Not to Create? Assessing Your Energy Levels

I’m totally committed to working on my novel five days a week. But today, it got a little challenging. We got a decent amount of snow here in Chicagoland, and in the time between two coaching calls — time I’d scheduled as my writing time for today — I realized I was going to need to go out and shovel. It was just one of those practical, mother-nature-induced, daily-life annoyances that I was going to have to deal with.

It ended up taking longer than I’d imagined it would. The car windows were wrapped in ice. The recycling bin fell over as I tried to pull it over a bank of snow. And so on.

“Screw it,” I thought as I trudged back up the steps to the house, my cheeks pink and my forehead clammy with sweat. “No writing today. I’ll just have to chalk it up to a snow day.”

Around 8:30, I wrapped up my last coaching call. I was hungry. I ate some leftover mostaccioli and opened my iPad and started playing the Fluff Pets Rescue game I’ve become addicted to over the past week, my “reward” for doing all the stuff I had on my to-do list. I took it as a given that I was too tired to write. But I felt a little bit hollow; the “to-do” list for the day wasn’t truly complete.

And then I felt a little pull in my stomach: a tingle of excitement. I noticed something: really, I wasn’t too tired to write. I wanted to write. So what if it was almost 9 p.m.? I could sit there rescuing fluffy pets (and who doesn’t want to sit around doing that?) or I could get up, go to the computer, and do a little writing.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t do much — just ten minutes of new writing. That was it. But, tonight, that was what it took to give me that feeling that I’d done enough. I moved the writing to the place where I’d done what I wanted to do with the story, with the language, for today. It felt good. I felt satisfied. I’d kept my commitment to myself, even if it wasn’t as much as I’d planned to write. It was enough.

Now: had I gotten off my last call at 8:30 and realized I was physically depleted, my eyes were starting to close and I truly needed to wind down for the night — had it felt like forcing and pushing and having to literally drag myself to the computer to make myself write — that would have been a different story. Had that been the case, I would have called it a day for today — no writing. I would have chalked it up to a snow day and left it at that. And it would have been good.

Geneen Roth once wrote, “Sometimes doing it looks like not doing it.” Sometimes, when we need to rest, that is exactly what we should be doing. This doesn’t mean that at those times we are not creating. Something in us, I believe, is still at work; our unconscious may be knitting together that impossible story problem while we dream.

And sometimes, like tonight for me, doing it looks just like that: going to the desk, sitting in the chair, typing the words into the computer, or scribbling away in your notebook (I still often love to write the old-fashioned way, in a hard-backed Cambridge notebook).

You can always listen to your body for information as to what you need most in this day, this moment. When you think about creating, do you get a little flicker of “yes!” in your chest, even if you’re tired, even if you’ve had a headache since noon? Then by all means, go for it, even so! If, when you think about creating today, your stomach plummets to your feet, your tired bones feel like they want to be in bed and maybe you’ve tried dragging yourself to the computer and sat there for a while and nothing’s really coming out, then, by all means, call it a day for today. You can, and will, start again tomorrow. Trust that implicitly.

By the way: Watch for a special announcement from me in the coming days — I have a cool gift for my readers that I’ll be writing about very soon!

The Message of Hesitation

What’s happening when we’re not sure, when we actually find ourselves stopping on the way to something we thought we wanted?

I asked myself this question today when I found myself feeling agitated and hesitant in the face of an opportunity that presented itself. And, to complicate things further, that age-old question I tend to torture myself with reared its head: Am I just procrastinating?

As I’ve written about previously, when we are truly procrastinating, there is a simplicity to what is going on. We know we want, or need, to do something (say, the laundry), but we’re enjoying sitting on the couch. Or, maybe I know I want to work on that chapter of my novel but I’m not sure where to go next. So I find I’m not getting over to the desk.

Today was different, though. An opportunity showed up and a part of me said, “Maybe I should jump on that.” But I couldn’t seem to do it. My body actually seemed to move away when I tried to move myself toward the opportunity. And then it didn’t move at all. I stalled.

The first tip-off was my use of the word should. Should is often (though not always) an indicator that some part of me is afraid. Yes, believe it or not, should frequently equals this: I’m afraid I’m going to miss out. I’m afraid someone (maybe me) is going to think poorly of me if I don’t. I’m afraid this might be my last chance to do X.

When I hear myself using the word should, it’s very likely my inner lizard is freaking out. “Should” is one of those words that almost always requires some investigation.

The next tip-off was my use of the word “jump”. Now, jumping can feel fun and exciting, but in this case, I noticed it was frought with a kind of urgency, a tangle of knots in my stomach that felt heavy as bowling balls. Some of my worst decisions have come from that urgent place. I highly recommend not making decisions (especially big ones) from a place of urgency or panic. If you’ve ever been in a true emergency situation, you probably noticed in retrospect that you simply acted. You grabbed your child or your cat or your goldfish and you left the house where you smelled smoke and called 911. You felt a pain in your stomach and you knew something wasn’t right and you got yourself to the ER.

Urgency and panic come up when we feel like we should be acting, but we’re not clear enough about what we want to know which action to take. And our minds start spinning out stories of future deprivation, poverty, hopelessness, madness, isolation.

When I noticed today that I was feeling urgent about taking a certain action, but hesitated in the face of it, I knew my hesitation was good. It was a message: you’re not clear. What do you need? Do you need more information? Do you need to give yourself a day to think about things? Are you trying to deny or ignore your intuition?

I know that when I answer these questions and come to a place of relative peace, I will know what to do. And if this opportunity wasn’t the right one, I can be sure that more will present themselves. That’s the cool thing about opportunity: not only does it knock twice, it knocks every freaking day, if you’re open to it.

What Moves You? Part Two

Last week, I wrote about how small actions can inspire us to movement, and how we can create an inner battle when we try to force ourselves to move.

There are times, though, when we know it’s in our best interest to take a particular action, but still we feel resistant. Still, we can’t seem to act. How do we tell the difference between the times when we genuinely want to move, but feel like an elephant is sitting on us, and the times when our lack of movement is a sign that it’s right for us to be still at this moment?

First, we check in with our bodies. Our bodies are always a wise guide for us. For example, right now I’d like to work on a chapter of my novel (okay, to be more accurate, I believe I should work on a chapter of my novel), but I find I’m not doing it. When I think about doing it, I feel a gnawing anxiety in my abdomen. My shoulders feel tight and my jaw is clenched. Ugggh — negative body compass reading for sure. Does this mean I shouldn’t work on my novel today?

Not necessarily. I need to interpret what I’m feeling in my body. What’s going on here? If I were to put words to what I’m feeling in my body, what would they be? Well, I don’t think the writing is very good. Something’s off about the voice. It’s a terrible novel. And really, I should have finished it a year ago …

There are a number of thoughts here that I could question. The writing’s not very good — is that true? The voice is off. Is that true? It’s a terrible novel. True? Should have finished it a year ago. Is that true?

All of this is mind chatter. It feels stressful, and that’s how I know I need to question these thoughts. The mind throws lots of thoughts out there — most of them negative — and if I take them too seriously, if I attach to them too much, they become a story about this novel: It sucks. Why work on it?

Just questioning the thoughts, though, I detach from them a little. I become the observer. I already feel a little lighter about working on my novel, because I can see where my mind may be feeding me some lies. At least some of the writing is probably good. It’s possible the voice may need some tweaking, but I’ll learn more about what’s going on with that by working on it. It may actually be a pretty good novel. Why should I have finished it a year ago? Who says?

Now, let’s look at what happens when I put words to the sensations in my body and I get something entirely different. Let’s say I check in with my body and feel a gnawing anxiety in my abdomen, tight shoulders, and a clenched jaw. I ask, what’s going on here? And the answer that comes is: Well, I’m feeling really burned out on this book. There’s no energy going toward it. I’ve been working hard on it, and I’d really like to put it aside for a while. I’d like to “fill the well,” as Julia Cameron puts it in The Artist’s Way.

How is this second situation different? In the first, I question my thoughts because they’re stressful, and when I do, I know I want to work on the novel. I just need to quiet the mind chatter, comfort it, put it to bed. (It’s okay, dear little Mind, we are going to work on the book anyway. There, there.)

In the second scenario, how do I know I really want to take a break, put the novel aside for a while, and fill the well? Because the thoughts don’t feel stressful. They are pointing me to what is true for me. The truth, even if we’re not thrilled with the sound of it, is never stressful. What is deeply true for us creates peace and clarity.

(And it will take trust in the process, and movement itself, for me to allow myself this break, this rest. But it will be well worth it.)

If what I wrote above just blew your mind or gave you a raging migraine, here’s another way to tell whether you really want to move toward something or not, which I learned from Martha Beck: If you feel ONLY fear, don’t do it. At least not right now. Regroup and figure out what’s going on. What’s the fear about? What’s its message for you?

If you feel fear AND desire, do it! (But do find some support and understanding for the part of you that is fearful. It can be a lot easier to take action when you have a friend to hold your hand, or at least hold the space for your fear.)

One caveat here: Sometimes I am so confused, overwhelmed, and out of my mind that I really can’t get in touch with my body very well, and I really don’t know if I’m feeling only fear, or a mix of fear and desire, or whether I have morphed into a garden slug. In these instances, I’ve learned that I may not know whether or not I truly wanted to take an action UNTIL I’ve taken it.

How do you determine whether or not you really want to take action right now? I’d love to know!