When I was in my dark night of the soul in my twenties, when fear had me in its grip and manifested daily as a driving phobia, my therapist advised me to, “Do battle with fear. Show it who’s boss! Yell at it! Tell it to let you go.” As this therapist had helped me more than any other, I followed his advice. I drove down the 405 freeway in Los Angeles after our sessions, the same freeway where I had had my first panic attack years earlier, and screamed into the night: “LET ME GO, FEAR! I HATE YOU! YOU DON’T HAVE ANY POWER!”
Fear laughed in my face, and the panic continued.
It would take me many more years to learn that we don’t break free from the grip of our fears, phobias, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety by going into battle with them. These parts are strong, and fighting with them only makes them stronger. As I wrote in this post many years ago, it’s like arguing with a three year old. You will never win that fight. The way through, as we are learning more and more in the psychological world and as spirituality has long-known, is to befriend these parts, to feed the demons until the ally encased in the center is revealed. For what we realize when we move toward them with an outstretched hand is that these parts that show up as bullies in efforts to protect us from getting hurt soften and shrink down to size in the light of love.
The two most common characters that appear in my work with clients and course members that try to sabotage inner work (but are actually inviting us to grow) are Resistance and Perfection. I’ve written many posts about Resistance and have included an entire module on it in my Break Free From Anxiety 9-Month course. Now let’s give some airtime to Perfection.
A recent session with a client brought Perfection to the fore. This client, like so many of you, is a highly sensitive person, which means she’s highly conscientious, highly empathic, highly intelligent, and, yes, prone to perfection. The propensity to perfection in this trait is not only a common byproduct of living in a culture that equates “getting it right” with self-worth, but is also an inborn characteristic; we strive to do well, and this natural inclination toward high standards, which is healthy, easily slips into perfection. Perfection is also a misguided way to try to control the messiness and unpredictability of life. This can manifest in different way for different people. Some people try to control their external environment and others try to control their thoughts and feelings. For this client, as for so many others that I work with, Perfection fed her the line:
If I could control my feelings, I would suffer less.
Our conversation (shared with permission) unfolded around this premise:
“If I could control my feelings, I would be lovable,” she said.
“What does that mean to control your feelings?” I inquired.
“If I could be less insecure and less sensitive, I wouldn’t struggle. If I could control my feelings, I would always feel good,” she said.
“Do you really believe that?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose it’s more like if I could accept my feelings – if I knew that feelings were just feelings and didn’t have to be fixed – most of the suffering would go away.”
It’s the Buddhist premise that life is suffering, but it’s our resistance to the pain that creates most of the suffering. Once we accept that life includes suffering, the suffering abates. Paradox at its best.
“What happens when you move toward more acceptance of the pain?” I asked, hearkening back to discussing we had had in the past.
“I feel more spacious. So is the goal to accept all parts of myself, including the perfectionist?”
“Ultimately, yes,” I responded.
“But that can get perfectionistic. Because what if I can’t always accept my pain? I know that the “goal” is to accept all parts – to befriend all parts of myself – but I can’t always do that and I hate that. I hate the pain and I hate that I can’t always accept it.”
“I really hear you. What you’re describing is painful and common. We hear frequently now to “meet ourselves wherever we are.” It’s a beautiful and compassionate mindset. But what you’re saying is, ‘What if I can’t always be compassionate to myself? What if I can’t always meet myself wherever I am?‘ It’s a great question and it really speaks to the Perfectionist who wants to get everything right, including healing,” I said. “So then it’s about bringing compassion to that part AND trying to accept that you won’t always be able to do that either, and that’s okay.”
This client is quite astute about naming the meta layers of how our minds work. So here she’s able to name that the “goal” or intention is to bring more compassion and acceptance to all parts of ourselves, but that the Perfectionist can latch onto even that! Oh, how tricky the mind can be…
I suggested here that instead of fighting with the Perfectionist or trying to get rid of it, which never works, that she try to move toward it and engage in a dialogue with it. So maybe the intention isn’t exactly to “accept” all parts as much as it is to be in relationship to all parts. And then to bring acceptance when we fall out of relationship with these parts, when we judge them or fuse with them as we remember that we are all human, which means sometimes we’ll forget our tools. I’ve come to see that this “forgetting” is part of the healing process as well, and when we understand that forgetting and remembering is a normal cycle for anyone on a psychological or spiritual path, we breathe a bit easier.
Like fear, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety, the more you banish Perfection the louder it gets. But as soon as you turn your gaze and attention toward these inner characters, again remembering that they have been your greatest protectors in an attempt to relieve suffering, they not only quiet down but they reveal their superpower. The superpower of anxiety is sensitivity. The superpower of intrusive thoughts is a connection to our emotional lives. The superpower of the Perfectionist? It’s probably different for everyone but it’s likely connected to a deep acceptance of what it means to be a beautiful and messy human being who opens and closes, forgets and remembers, attends and ignores, fuses and witnesses.
The great paradox is that the moment you accept the Perfectionist and reach out your hand, your inner parent is back online. Sometimes all it takes is a simple naming – “My perfectionist has entered the building” – and you’re back in the saddle of your life. So much is healed by the simple act of noticing. And when you can’t do that, that’s okay, too. Like a pebble falling into a pond and creating reverberating circles, so we circle out in layers and layers of acceptance, learning to accept even and especially the parts of ourselves that we have found most unacceptable and the times when we can’t accept ourselves. Healing happens less in the changing and more in the noticing, less in the fixing and more in the accepting. Slowly, and with as much tenderness as we can, we heal when we know that every single part of us is okay. And then remembering that not knowing that we’re okay is okay, too.