2.5
March 31, 2024

“Paralyzed by Perfect”: How to Make Peace with our Inner Perfectionist.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

*Did you know you can write on Elephant? Here’s how—big changes: How to Write & Make Money or at least Be of Benefit on Elephant. ~ Waylon

 

There’s nothing like the thrill of doing something so well that you are completely satisfied with it.

And there’s nothing like the agony of feeling that you didn’t accomplish something as perfectly as you had hoped.

Sometimes this pain is just annoying. But sometimes it feels overwhelming. And fearing this pain can stop us from doing the things that bring us joy. Fearing the pain of perfectionism can prevent us from living full, happy, perfectly imperfect lives.

This happened to a client of mine. “Sam” loved to create art. He was a painter who poured his soul into his work. This was how he processed his feelings. How he made sense of the world. And how he came back to his center when the many demands of life threatened to exhaust him.

However, he often experienced such crippling anxiety, he couldn’t paint at all! When he thought about painting, he was often so overwhelmed by inner pressure to produce a Louvre-worthy masterpiece, he lost the urge to create anything. “It isn’t fun for me anymore,” he sighed. “And if I don’t enjoy it, what’s the point?”

Sam was Paralyzed by Perfect.

So we set out to bring back the fun of creation.

Find the Fun

When Sam was alone, it was easy for his inner perfectionist to take over. No matter what his rational mind told him about moderation, that irrational voice of pressure and doom spoke louder.

He had had plenty of practice rehearsing the emotional reaction of anxiety, pressure, and overwhelm that his perfectionism brought him. But when we were together, my presence as a benign outsider interrupted the perfectionist circuit—in a safe way. Being with someone who simply wasn’t him gave him a safe container where he could notice when he was getting upset. He could pause instead of instantly reacting by shutting down. He could briefly allow a gap between stimulus and reaction and choose a moment of response instead. He could explore and rehearse new patterns of peace, calm, and possibility.

In that moment of pausing, he was able to reconnect with how he used to feel about drawing and painting. He smiled, remembering feeling curious about the journey of making art. He smiled, remembering the pleasure of exploring the process of drawing as opposed to the result.

We shared a protected moment in which Sam recaptured the enjoyment of making art. He remembered enjoying watching a drawing unfold, enjoying wondering what might happen next, enjoying how it felt to hold art supplies in his hands, enjoying noticing how colors and lines evolved before him, created by him and yet also leading him somewhere new. And nowhere in this exploration did he say anything about the final result.

In that pause, he reconnected with the sensations associated with his positive experiences with art. And he re-found his fun.

Do you have someone who makes you feel safe, to whom you can reach out when you’re feeling perfectionist? Or do you have a routine that helps you safely pause and make intentional choices when negative emotions try to overwhelm you? What else grounds you?

Can you pause and re-find your fun?

What’s Your Doodle?

I wanted to interrupt the thought process that led to Sam’s perfectionism taking over. I wanted to offer him fresh ways to reconnect with the world of art that used to be his friend and had overtime become so threatening. So instead of inviting him to spend weeks painting a big, complicated, vulnerable self-portrait, I did the opposite.

I asked him to grab anything he had that would make a mark. A crayon, a candy bar, whatever. And any disposable surface that he could mark up. A note pad, a burger receipt, an Amazon box…whatever. Precious materials can make us freeze. Fine linen canvases, high-quality paints, or expensive sable brushes can sometimes make us feel that we have to do “great work” with them. But fooling around with disposable household objects can foster a relaxed state of generous curiosity. And that leads to free-flowing creativity.

Since he usually spent weeks working on a picture, I gave him a timed three minutes. Let the pen touch the paper and just see what comes out, I said. Try moving your hand and see where it goes. Give it three minutes. I will sit here with you. I don’t have to see what you make. It can be private. Just see what happens.

At first Sam was anxious. And doubtful. But soon the pen in his hand took over, and he was doodling, for the first time in many years. He was engrossed in the sensation of the pen touching the paper, instead of worrying about the outcome. His breathing slowed down. His voice dropped and his words came out slowly and peacefully. And when the timer rang, he wanted to keep on going. “I could doodle forever,” he said, calmly and happily.

He chose to share his doodle with me. It was a collection of squiggles and slashes, not at all his usual representational art. I invited him to tell me a story about it. He gazed at it thoughtfully, and a story came to him that led to some meaningful personal work. But he hadn’t initially set out with this story in mind. The doodling came first, and unlocked the possibility for the story.

I let Sam know that now that he had reconnected with it, doodling was always available to him. Here was one place where he could allow himself to set down the pressure of perfection. One place where he could allow himself the fun and curiosity of process.

And if this one safe place existed where he could play, might other places also exist?

Full-Spectrum Possibilities

We had reconnected with a healthy pattern of exploring possibility instead of letting the voice of perfection silence Sam’s creativity. And now he had a new physical memory of embracing relaxed, process-oriented curiosity. As a last step, we created a new range of dialogue possibilities for Sam’s inner voice.

Perfectionism, like other deep-rooted defence mechanisms, is a form of protection. It’s based on fear. Its intention is to help us survive. As such, trying to get rid of it right away only makes it flare up more violently. But we can practice giving ourselves a range of options to explore.

I let Sam know that it was okay to have this inner perfectionist voice. The voice wanted the best for him, and over time, we could help the voice learn new ways of looking out for Sam’s best interests. We could use its positive intentions while giving it new things to say.

The perfectionist voice took up plenty of airtime, telling Sam, “that’s not quite right,” “that’s not good enough,” “that came out wrong,” and other criticisms. So we posed a challenge: could he practice giving just as much airtime to concepts like, “hey, that was pretty good!” “I did that thing well,” and, “close enough!”

And one day, maybe even, “wow, that was fantastic of me!”

I invited him to expand his collection of self-remarks, including neutral and positive statements. It would be up to him to practice reinforcing this broader range of self-talk. Creating new thought patterns wouldn’t magically happen; he’d need to put in consistent attention over time. Building healthy habits requires piling up many little choices over a long period. But it can be done, and once the healthy habits are ingrained, they can start to happen automatically. One day, the person who used to think, “well gosh that sucked,” can find themselves spontaneously thinking, “what a great job I did on that presentation! Way to go, me!”

Happily-Enough Ever After

Over time, the combination of re-finding his fun, exploring process-oriented play, and consciously inviting himself to explore a healthy range of self-talk, helped Sam recreate his creativity. He reconnected with his artistic self. He recognized when his inner perfectionist wanted to take over and was able to pause and reroute. He could consistently find calm curiosity, and he could play again.

And he made beautiful art.

~

{Please consider Boosting our authors’ articles in their first week to help them win Elephant’s Ecosystem so they can get paid and write more.}

Read 1 Comment and Reply
X

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Jordana del Feld  |  Contribution: 1,905

author: Jordana del Feld

Image: mindfulnista/Instagram

Editor: Elyane Youssef

Relephant Reads:

See relevant Elephant Video