How this Powerful Character Can Sabotage Personal Growth

by | Jan 19, 2020 | Anxiety, Trust Yourself | 21 comments

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.

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21 Comments

  1. Maybe Resistance and Perfectionism need right-livelihood in our lives? Resistance can give us the time and distance to say, “This not that.” Perfectionism can edit text and double-check our math. Maybe if these wild and crazy characters feel seen and heard and most importantly loved, they will stay balanced and in service and we’ll feel more whole?

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    • Love this xx thank you for hearing my beauty, as I do you xx god bless ?

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  2. This article is amazing. It was just what I needed tonight. I relate to your client soo much! Whew I feel like a weight has been lifted that I’ve been carrying around since this afternoon. Thank you for your work!!

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    • I’m so glad it arrived at the right time :).

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  3. This is a beautiful essay on how we can try to nurture the inner wounds from past traumas unresolved conflicts, and parts of ourselves (including unhappiness itself) that we try to push away. Well done Sheryl. I always find wisdom in your teachings. Peace. Don

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    • I’m so glad that hear that, Don.

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  4. There is healing in just reading these words.

    I am currently house hunting with my husband and it is bringing up all kinds of pain and anxiety from when my parents divorced and we lost our childhood home. No closure, no warning, it was very painful for me and my family.

    Thank you for the reminder to make space for the pain. It feels like such a relief to be reminded that we don’t have to resist these feelings.

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    • The less you resist, the more ease you’ll find in all transitions, including the transition of life, and house buying is a massive transition!

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  5. I have a driving phobia which started after having a panic attack on the motorway… a few therapists have said the only way is to face my fear, exposure, and then I’ll find that nothing bad will happen and to repeat this over and over… this approach hasn’t helped me, it’s made things worse! I think it’s time for the Sheryl approach, although not sure how I apply it to driving.. X

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    • I highly recommend the book Dare for working with specific phobias, like driving. It’s more than exposure therapy. It’s an entire mindset that changes your relationship to fear and panic.

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  6. Thank you for this article, it’s precious =)
    How accept the forgetting?
    it’s a challenge every time it happens, so easy to take the old destructive road of judgment and shame, but I’m realizing that in those specific times is possible to be present in so many ways and consequently accept and choose to be compassionate with ourselves, sometimes even with a smile of humor and healthy self-irony.

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    • A smile of humor and healthy self-irony go a LONG way toward self-kindness ;).

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  7. Sheryl, thank you for sharing your story about the driving phobia. I, too, developed a terrible driving phobia until I was almost house-bound. I hid it from everyone because I thought they would take away my driver’s license, and then I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself and work. Somehow through what I believe was only the Hand of God, I made it through the painful years and years.

    Thirty years later, I am finally on a healing journey. Your words: “Healing happens less in the changing and more in the noticing, less in the fixing and more in the accepting,” are so meaningful to me now because I spent decades “fighting with a 3-year old.”

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    • Mary: I’m so glad that my words have brought comfort, and that you’re well on your healing journey.

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  8. Sheryl, like so many others, I am always shocked by the timeliness of your posting as it relates to my personal life and current challenges. Lately, my perfectionist check comes in the form of the phrase, “This isn’t it.” In the moments when I am living in the Grace of God (driven by love and not fear), I am invariably open and feel an undercurrent of peace. This peace is often accompanied by other emotions, both classically “positive” and classically “negative”. When I am in this state, I stop to acknowledge it as often as I can remember, by saying ,”This is it.” What I love most about this state is that it is all-inclusive. I may feel very down and melancholy, and still be living in the Grace of God. On the contrary, when I sense any sort of battle within or outside of myself, I simply say, “This isn’t it.” This allows me to then enter into conversation with my Higher Self, whom I feel is infinitely connected to God, and have a conversation about whatever feeling the inner or outer battle is trying to protect me (or the world as a collective) from feeling, and therefore holding me (or us) back from living in the Grace of God.

    I also want to add that I, like every other human, forget to use this and nearly all my tools from time to time. Sometimes I act out of anger, sometimes out of desperation, and other times out of self-righteousness, just to name a few of my tendencies. And then when the remorse sets in, I start the cycle of perfectionist checking and reconnection all over again. Some days I move forward in leaps and bounds, and other days I feel like I spent more time trying to get up off the ground than I did growing as a person. It helps to remind myself that we have been given an entire lifetime to grow. I am so grateful for each moment. This is a humbling life, isn’t it?

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    • Thank you for sharing your beautiful and human process, Jeana. Your words are so important to share and read. Humbling, indeed! And also deeply connecting when we remember that we’re all in this together. x

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  9. Lovely read! I related so much to the grip of fear showing in your driving anxiety. I’ve had this now for a few years and am not sure how to move forward. Could you explain what helped you in more detail please?

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  10. I so needed to hear this. I recently cut off someone who was showing tendencies toward abuse, and I have felt the urge to beat myself up for not knowing better, to keep striving to “fix” myself, and to shame myself for still wrestling with demons I “should have” already defeated. I love the idea of allowing myself to forget all that I’ve learned, and then remember it when I do. What a way to trust. Thank you.

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  11. Your voice is the most beautiful light. It brings tears to my eyes and stirs my heart in such a unique and beautiful way. I am in the midst of my dark night of the soul, which is confusingly at the most joyful time of my life as a New mom to a now 2 year old and my anxiety has been horrendous. It’s so calming to read that it’s ok to go in and out, remember and forget, that it’s ok…because I get so hard on myself for the days when I feel like I am completely failing. Thank you. Thank you.

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    • It’s all completely okay, Sarah, and also common to be stumbling through holding the paradox of a dark night and deep love. Sending love.

      Reply

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