Judging ourselves and finding that we come up short is endemic in our high-powered, fast-paced world. We say things to ourselves that we’d never consider saying to a loved one. “Well, I blew that.” “What a jerk I am.” “I am hopeless.” Harsh self-talk is an insidious and destructive side effect of perfectionism.
What if you didn’t have to be perfect? I know. It doesn’t feel like a choice. Compulsions never do. Like a hamster on a wheel, you don’t know how to stop and get off, to give yourself a break from an endless cycle of perceived failure to quite measure up.
Let’s take a close look at the origins of perfectionism. At some point we were rewarded for getting something just right. Maybe it was in athletics, homemaking, child rearing, crisis management, even our appearance. Naturally, we wanted that reward again. And it felt good when it came. At some point our self-worth came to depend upon getting it just right. One area where perfectionism plagued me is in entertaining. The table setting was only one of the things that had to be just right. I might drive 30 miles out of my way to get matching napkins. Yes, perfectionism can be expensive too!
By definition, when anything less than perfect is unacceptable, you are inflexible. And guess what, flexibility is the magical way to get off that hamster wheel. It was a wise tai chi teacher who helped me learn the wisdom and freedom that flexibly can bring to our lives. In fact, in tai chi, flexibility can actually save your life. And, since the stress of perfectionism can make you ill, learning to adapt to your limitations and the limitations of a situation can save your life as well. And, if you don’t know this already, perfectionists are not so fun to be around. As harshly as you are judging yourself, people often feel that you may turn that judgement on them.
So, you’re not fun to be around and you’re not having fun. How is that working for you? Starting with small changes, you have the power to free yourself from the grip of impossible standards. A mindful noting of negative self-talk is a starting point on the way to recovery. When you catch yourself sitting in judgement on your looks, your performance, or your status in the world you can shine the light of awareness on that before it worms its way into your consciousness.
A skillful next step is to look at whatever situation you’re in and ask yourself what would be a good-enough outcome. I’m not asking that you suddenly become sloppy or slipshod. Making a flexible choice is not a slippery slope toward incompetence! You may feel that fear but make the good-enough choice anyway. You need the practice if you’re ever going to experience the freedom that you secretly long for in your battered mind and heart. Those are strong words but years, decades even, of negative self-talk is that damaging. Only you can liberate yourself.
Take a lesson from the animals in your life. If they miss the frisbee, fall off the couch, or knock over the water bowl they give them selves another chance. And so should you. Have fun!