In a recent counselling session, I was struck once again by how much perfectionism limits our potential. My client was a successful and accomplished woman who seemed to have it all in life but was not enjoying anything about her life. She could only list her shortcomings and was focused on how her “failures” left her feeling unsatisfied. There was nothing on the outside of her life that indicated she felt inadequate, but when it came to the inside she was plagued with insecurity. This woman felt that she was not good enough and that, if people really knew her, they would be disappointed.
This was a story I had heard many times before. Perfectionists may look successful, but they are often hiding the deep dark secret that they feel like an imposter in their own lives. This is the skewed perception of the perfectionist. Somehow they have to be perfect to be accepted. Since it is impossible to be perfect, a perfectionist cannot accept themselves.
It is much like anorexia, as an anorexic has a skewed perception of her size and appearance. We know that most anorexics are struggling with perfectionism. Although not all perfectionists have physical anorexia, they may experience feelings of “psychological anorexia” where their self-perceptions are skewed and not based in reality. “Psychological anorexia” inhibits one from being able to enjoy the pleasures and sustenance that come from a satisfying experience.
When my client began to discuss her inability to relax and enjoy the experiences in her life, I challenged her to give up perfectionism and become an “Exceptionalist.” The reality is if we allow ourselves to get lost in our perfectionistic tendencies, we will limit our ability to live to our full potential and impact others. When we are in the company of a perfectionist, we are often left feeling inadequate and unseen. It is actually through our imperfections and vulnerability that we connect with others.
I reminded my client that being perfect will always feel outside her grasp, like reaching for something at the back of the cupboard that you think is there but you just can’t quite reach. The frustration of not reaching the desired object leaves you feeling inadequate and dissatisfied. A life spent reaching for something in the back of a cupboard is not a well spent life. My client looked surprised and indicated that that was exactly the way she felt.
So, how does one move from this desire for “perfection” to experiencing the joy and satisfaction that is found in “exceptionalism”? These are the points I explored with my client that assisted her in moving away from her “psychological anorexia.” To become an exceptionalist, follow these simple pointers:
- It is not all about you. Stop focusing so much on yourself. Look to what you can contribute to others.
- Have realistic expectations (of yourself and others).
- Start learning how to have “honest conversations” with yourself.
- Accept your own unique package in life. You are who you are!
- Stop berating yourself when you make a mistake. It teaches you nothing and only makes other people uncomfortable.
- Be humble, but remember self-deprecation is not humility.
- Mistakes are not your enemy, they are your teachers.
- Practice grace in defeat and disappointment.
- Allow things to get messy and uncomfortable once in a while, as you will then become more able to tolerate your discomfort.
- Get out of your head and stay present in your body as much as you can. This is the only way to actually feel joy. Pay attention to what your body is experiencing.
So, from a reformed perfectionist myself, I wish you all a joyful and interesting journey into your exceptional life. Get ready to have some fun and feel true satisfaction!