The Escape Hatch of Perfection

IMG_6124There are so many ways that we can avoid pain. We can choose denial. We can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. We can fall prey to fear/ego’s insidiously convincing beliefs that to turn inward is “selfish, indulgent, and will get you nowhere.” We avoid pain because we live in a culture that teaches us to avoid pain. We avoid pain because we don’t know that turning toward pain (and I use pain as an umbrella term for anything uncomfortable that we wish to avoid feeling) is one of the secret pathways to joy.

If you’ve found your way to my site, one of your default methods of avoiding pain is likely to travel up to the safe regions of your mind where pain can’t find you. There you sit at the Great Loom of Intrusive Thoughts and spin your web of “what-ifs” and “if-onlys”, each thread keeping you stuck in anxiety of the future or regret of the past. Grief can’t find you there, lost in the uppermost corner of your mental castle like Rapunzel, spinning and spinning your golden thread. Except this thread isn’t gold. It might shimmer like gold. It might lure you like gold. But there’s nothing golden about being stuck in the cold chambers of the mind. Safe, yes. But it’s not alive, rich, or full. It’s simply where you’ve learned to go because you haven’t been taught another way to tend to pain.

And on this Thought Loom, alongside thoughts that characterize relationship anxiety like, “What if I’m with the wrong partner?” and “What if we don’t love each other enough?”, escape-hatch threads weave their way into the fabric of psyche. These sound like, “I’ll never be a mother” and “I’ll be happy when…”. Whether or not you’re in a relationship, you have escape-hatch threads that are as familiar to your inner landscape as breathing. And almost all of these thoughts are braided with the thread of perfection.

For it simmers down to one, simple, powerful belief: “If I’m perfect, I’ll avoid pain.” The sister beliefs are: “If I’m with my perfect partner, I’ll avoid pain” or “If I find the perfect [house, city, job], I’ll avoid pain.”

Embedded in the quest for perfection is the quest for certainty. Ego believes that the attainment of perfection is the safeguard against the uncertainty that defines human life. But of course perfection is never attained because it doesn’t exist. Even if we consciously know this, a part of us rails against it and still keeps trying. We create more subtle yet elaborate ways to escape from the messiness and discomfort of being human, from the inescapable reality that life includes pain, loss, and ultimately, death.

A moment of pain can enter as quietly as a feather that lands on the cushion of the heart. The other day I was sitting outside and I had the thought, “I want to move.” I know my mind well enough to know that this became one of my escape hatches that started after the September 2013 flood when our world was turned upside-down. I had dabbled with the idea of moving prior to the flood, but after we lost our land and almost lost our house I experienced a new level of uncertainty that I desperately wanted to avoid again. Now the thought  “I want to move” or the image of a picture-perfect house arrives on the heels of a pinprick of pain.

So in that moment, instead of attaching onto the thought and indulging it by getting online and searching for a new and “perfect” house (which I’ve been prone to do), I said out loud, “There’s no perfect house.” I named the defense, and in the naming I allowed for the grief to surface. Sometimes the grief is connected to a current circumstance, and sometimes it’s connected to the nameless grief that runs like an underground river through our human lives. After calling out the fantasy of perfection, I backtracked through my heart to find the source of the pain. Oh, yes, there it is. Breathe.

I name, I breathe, I feel. And in the naming and feeling, the top-layer defenses simmer down into a purr of contentment, the place where all experiences and emotions live harmoniously. It’s not that I bypassed the pain and found happiness. No, it’s that I made room for the pain at the tea-table of my heart and, in doing so, reversed the habitual escape-hatch fantasy of some other perfect house that will lift me out of the pain of being human.

There is a roadmap we can learn that will help us to process our inner worlds with grace and wisdom. There is a way of turning inward that allows us to heal and grow toward our truest nature. This is what I teach in my Trust Yourself program, a 30-day course for anyone who seeks to break free from the stronghold of perfectionism, caring what other people think, the fear of failure, and self-doubt.  My work isn’t formulaic, but it does fill in the emotional, cognitive, and psychological gaps left by a culture that simply doesn’t know how to grow its members toward self-love and self-trust. And without self-trust, we are lost on the churning seas of our constantly shifting inner and outer worlds. If you wold like to learn this roadmap so that you connect to your own source of wisdom and self-love, please join me for my next round, which will begin on June 11th. As one of the participants from the last round of Trust Yourself shared (you can read her full testimonial on the Trust Yourself page):

“I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” — Walt Whitman

I feel like I’ve really “been around the block” in my search for inner harmony. Well, it’s only been about six years, but I sure did a lot of searching in that amount of time! For me, in many courses, books and programs there is a subtle exaltation of the work above the people that are studying it. At no point did I feel that way during this course, however. Sheryl, I feel like you have not forgotten what it feels like on a very detailed level, to be someone who has not found the work yet. Even though I know they are well meaning, for me, many teachers give me a feeling of “I’ve cleaned up and I will tell you how to get clean, but I will not get any dirt on me with you.” But with you as my teacher, I felt like I was with a gardener who does not think dirt is a bad thing, who gets her own hands in the soil and cultivates every day. I never got a sense of an exultation of the work or the product or idea above the people.

This course was a gift to me and my family. I think it’s going to cultivate much more for me than I’m even aware of now. I can’t quite express it as well as I’d like to, but I hope you can sense what a difference you’ve made for me and my family. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone. Even more, I wish I could just wave a magic wand and deliver the course to most people because whether they believe it would help them or not, I am of the strong belief that it would.

I look forward to seeing you there.

42 comments to The Escape Hatch of Perfection

  • Brooke Hatfield

    I sure wish you lived in Vancouver!! I’d be a weekly appt! You are beyond wise and I have not heard one therapist or other speak as you do about relationship anxiety. Thank you.

  • onedayatatime

    “We create more subtle yet elaborate ways to escape from the messiness and discomfort of being human, from the inescapable reality that life includes pain, loss, and ultimately, death.” This speaks so deeply for me. I can sometimes get stuck thinking about the pain and suffering that exists globally. Now I am personally experiencing this with my grandma who is undergoing yet more health complications and procedures as she is nearing the end of her life. And she is experiencing pain and sadness. I want to save her from having to go through these painful procedures or likely spending the end of her life in a hospital. Witnessing her experience can feel even more powerless because I can’t save her from pain or death. I can see how managing my own experience around this feels more empowering but I ultimately can’t manage her experience. This is tough. And I want to manage it because I want to save her from any pain. I get angry at the system and think of ways I want it to be perfect. I want the health professionals taking care of her to be perfect. It’s difficult to accept that pain and death are part of life but this helps to stay aware of what my intentions and feelings are about. I need to feel my own pain and grief. But I am still struggling with “living my life” knowing what she is having to deal with at the very same moment.

    • Watching a loved one suffer is such a painful and multi-faceted experience, especially when you’re aware that it could be less painful if the system were more compassionate. Yes, stay with your own grief and also allow your desire to change the system to guide your actions – if not now, with your grandmother, then perhaps in the future.

  • anxiouslyengaged

    Hi Sheryl,

    You brought up a point about you realizing your wanting to move as an escape from pain… I am wondering how you are able to decipher that longing to move as fear or as a truth? I have recently been wanting to move closer to home for a while now. I have not lived at home since I was 18 (Now 29) and I am longing to be near my sister and parents and other friends. I am thinking that this has been a major source of grief for myself and a source of my relationship anxiety. I am wondering how you are able to tell the difference.

    I have been living in the city that my husband grew up in now for 3 years and although I love it, I truly miss my parents and my family. Sometimes when we are together I notice a huge sense of pain I feel. Now is this pain I have to deal with, or why not look to move closer to home. My husband is open to it but I also don’t want to pick up and move if this is one of my minds tricks… how am I supposed to tell the difference? I don’t necessarily think that I will just be “happier” being closer to my parents, but I think it will feel very loving, to be near my parents as they get older and as children come into the picture.

    Thanks for your help!! xoxox

    • This is where self-knowledge comes in. The simple formula I teach in the Trust Yourself program is: self-knowledge + self-love = self-trust. In other words, when we know ourselves and love ourselves then we naturally trust ourselves. So for me, I know myself well enough to know that when the thought/image of moving enters my consciousness, it’s a mental escape hatch.

      That said, wanting to move closer to your family, especially when you sense kids on the horizon, is one of the most basic and primal needs we have. We are meant to raise our children close to community, and if your husband is open, I would encourage you to trust that the pain and longing are stemming from a core need and follow it up with loving action (please read last week’s article on The Wisdom of Longing to learn to discern between longing that encases core needs).

  • Annie

    Wanting to live near family was a longing I had for years. It was for me not about a fantasy or a way to be perfectly happy. It was my values – family is a top priority. Living near them feeds my soul. Why not move and experience it and see what comes? The beauty of moving is that we are always free to choose to move again.

  • Talespinner77

    Oh your impeccable timing. As the years go by the anxiety waxes & wanes & just when I am feeling ok again I take on more projects than I should, (particularly in the spring when I get a deep sense of wanderlust). So naturally this comes crashing down on me & sets me off into my escape mode. I have been experiencing deep depression & anxiety for a month now & am ready to head for the hills even though I know I may get some relief, I know the old feelings will come back again. I am still with my wonderful guy that knows everything I experience & loves all of me & has said he will wander with me if I will let him come along. Sadly I don’t see running away as the answer anymore so that leaves me with little hope of these feelings elevating to give me a break for a bit. My soul is weary & the highs that used to sustain me have run their course so now I am left with the pain. It is not an easy path by any means, but you give me hope I can navigate it.

    • Always good to hear from you, and yes, it’s a continual journey of identifying the escape hatch fantasies and bringing ourselves back to the messiness of life right here and right now.

  • H

    Do you have a article on being away from eachother? I have a trip next month for 5 days away from my partner. I am petrified. I want to cry when I think about leaving him for that long. I know it is healthy to have time apart with your friends and enjoy the time away but I just don’t want to leave him. I am scared. I know that if I’m that scared of something bad happening then I won’t let anything bad happen (as much as I can in my control) but I guess it’s just alien to me to be apart for that long! We used to be long distance and now I am so used to living together I don’t know how I’d cope away from him. I am scared of missing him too much and feeling the pain of this! I know I should pathetic but I don’t know how to do this!!

  • HS

    Hi sheryl,

    I know I spend a lot of time up in my head because in a very twisted way, despite the uncomfortable thoughts, it does feel safer. The prospect of dropping down into my body and staying there is terrifying. I think I would be absolutely consumed and devastated by raw emotion and I’m just not strong enough to support myself through that.

  • Michele

    I’ve recently gotten back together with my boyfriend after a sudden breakup and a few months apart. At first I was overjoyed, but I’ve struggled the last few months, going back and forth wondering if it is the right thing or if I just have moved on without realising it and there’s no point in moving on. He’s been really great, we’ve talked through our issues and I really want to make it work, but sometimes I’m overcome with anxiety that I don’t love him/want this/it’ll never work out. I worry that I can’t see a future the way that I used to. I’ve found my way to this site, been trying to practice mindfullness and not give into the thoughts too much, and things have been getting better, at least I think – but the thoughts are still there, and they still flare up. I think part of it might be fear, but I’m not sure of what – I was planning on moving back from the UK to North America after the break-up, as I was so distraught, and taking a new direction with my life. Now I am just not sure of anything, and the worry that I’ll have to end it and hurt him the way he hurt me overwhelms me sometimes. But I worry that I don’t feel as strongly or as sure as I used to. I know we can never be certain of anything, but I am wondering if this sounds like Relationship Anxiety, or if it just sounds like I need to let go and move on…just when I think I’ve gotten a grip on my thoughts and can trust myself to move forward with him, the thoughts flare up again, and all the things my family and friends have said to me, warning me about getting back together with him, take over.

  • Darlene

    Hi Sheryl,

    This was kind of perfect but at the same time very painful. Recently, my partner got a new job in a dangerous position, and we are moving. It has triggered a fear of loss, as if I’m grieving the death of my partner already. It’s such a mind switch and I feel vulnerable and helpless. I was abused as a child and saw abuse. I’ve also been abandoned and rejected throughout my life as a teen and adult. When I met my partner I had relationship anxiety and I took your course open your heart and I’ve since learned what love is. I’ve also taken trust yourself. My problem now is I fear loss and losing such a great love. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD. Means lots of triggers. My partner was raised in a healthy attachment style and she is okay with uncertainty. I’m wondering if you’ve ever worked w anyone who’s been able to overcome a fear of loss with a past such as mine? I just want some hope. Thank you 🙂

  • WorkingOnMe

    What if… rather than trying to avoid pain, we’re able to embrace it, work through it, and grow and learn from those challenging/painful experiences?

    What if… we no longer wonder if we’re “with the right partner,” but, rather, we realize we’ll have pain/challenge/struggle with ANY partner.

    What if we’re just looking for a more balanced relationship between joy and pain with a partner…but that might not be able to happen with our current relationship???

    What if right now… we’re in an unbalanced relationship… that has had more pain/challenge/struggle, (and been unbalanced in this aspect) right from the start?

    It’s hard to withstand pain for years and years, without the reserves of joy, laughter, and happy memories to get through the rough times. Especially, if you didn’t have that wonderful, lustful/passionate honeymoon period at the beginning. (We did not.) And when rough times, lead to rougher and rougher times… and there aren’t the happy, laughing memories to get us through… how does that relationship survive when we’re not certain we have anything left to give?

  • Chantal

    Hi Sheryl,

    I know you answered this somewhere, but I don’t remember where. I am thinking of seeing another therapist to help me, but am a bit nervous because the last one I was seeing (for different reasons) answered my relationship anxiety with “well sometimes relationships just don’t work out…” or something of the sort. How do you screen for a therapist who would fall along your line of work?

    Do you ask them the question… “What’s your opinion on doubt means don’t?”

    Also, how is it best to work with a therapist and do the coursework? Do people bring in their notes from the course and they go over it or do you bring in certain articles etc?

    Thank you <3

    • Yes, the best diagnostic question for a new therapist is, “What is your opinion on doubt in a relationship?” And yes, it’s great to bring your coursework to the therapist.

  • Anna

    Surely everything relationship anxiety tells you isn’t lies? I’m not saying it’s the truth either.
    For example, I’m in my first relationship and I have a lot of anxiety about that, and about how I feel like our relationship is doomed to fail and I fear wanting to be with someone else in the future because I never experienced dating anyone else before him. This didn’t bother me before the relationship anxiety set in, I knew I wanted to be with my guy, and I thought sure it’d be hard work but it’s possible.

    What I’m asking is, is it possible for relationship anxiety to take a “real threat”, for example being in a first relationship while young, and making it seem to you like that makes a future impossible, even if it isn’t necessarily impossible? Is this a part of fear distorting perception?

  • Anne

    I have been trying to connect with my grief and just can’t get all the way, it’s like I can’t access my honest feelings sometimes. I wonder now if your course could help with this, as it seems to relate to not letting in the pain.

    That said, I follow your blog for months and years, thank you so much for your continuous flow of wisdom and compassion. And yes, obviously almost. I still struggle with anxiety, intrusive thoughts about my marriage, job, life choices…

  • Newly Married

    Hi Sheryl, do you think you could write an article about Retroactive Jealousy, I myself have been dealing with that for a long time, I been doing the work but I dont click on how to I handle this…
    My partner and I were going out like 5 years ago we were not committed or anything but we grew feelings for each other, he had a girl who was not his girlfriend who was living with him on and off at the time, she had left supposedly for good but then she came back and he took her back, that left me very wounded thinking he choose her over me, anyhow years later we got back together me and my now husband and he explained that she was nothing to him, they were never committed and he never loved her and he was never really in a relationship with her he would just accept her under the conditions that she knew that he was not gonna change if she wanted to come back she knew it and she accepted it, but I never knew this all these years I thought he had taken her back and choose her over me. My husband also told me that when he started having feelings for me he decided to push me away because he knew he was not good for me and I was a good girl and he didnt want to bring me to the mess he was ( we were young back then I was 24 he was 26) and he was the kind of guy who was out every weekend in bars and a flirt, (player you may say)….. anyhow ever since I have struggle with Retroactive Jealousy on and off, and Intrusive thoughts and that he choose her over me even though he married me, and I also get jealous of the amount of time she was with her, it was like 8 years all together that they were on and off, he never loved her and indeed I know for sure he never respected her he just had a girl in his home to cook per say….
    My husband admits that he was a mess and he was just a boy very immature that didnt care about anything but party and he never wanted to hurt me or bring me to that mess, anyhow that thought of ” her having him for so many years” makes me so jealous even thought they were nothing, and it hunts me down too…. Can you write about that please… I dont understand how do I handle or hit the root of that insecurity, I even have thoughts that tell me ” maybe you never loved him, it was just that he left you that made you want him” I know real love is what you give and it takes years to grow and I love his essence, but those thoughts come often that make me doubt.
    My husband has become a man, not a boy anymore like when we were young and he is amazing and humble and gentle loving respectful and amazing and mature he there for me regardless of my issues, he is always willing to learn and grow, he is 33 and I am 32, I want to be with him he is amazing and I want to give him the best back, but my wound doesnt let me and it tells me that he left me for her because I was not his first choice and he loved her not me and that he is now with me because they broke up not because it was me who choose… My husbands tells me that he loved and loves me and pushed me away because he saw I was different and good and he was not mature and ready. I dont know how to heal this or what is it that I need to do….

    Please Help

    Thank you…

  • Newly Married

    May I add that the retroactive jealousy is not about others girls, but about the fact that I thought he had left me for that girl, is like she is the treat, and about how many years they were together and me being like the ( New) in the relationship when she was the one who was there the longest even thought they were never even committed…. I dont know how to work through this… I felt lost on where to start.

  • Anne

    As always, thank you Sheryl for a beautiful post that speaks directly to my heart at this moment. My MIL has battled courageously against a rare combo of two aggressive cancers with incredible strength and courage for six months; sadly, nothing has worked and the doctors think she has about three or four weeks left to live. She made the decision to call Hospice yesterday after exhausting all the second opinions available. And I’m 34 weeks pregnant with our second child, who she will never meet here on Earth. The cycle of life and death is playing out in front of my husband and me in such a tangible, grief-filled way.

    In the last twenty-four hours I’ve started obsessing over whether the baby is moving enough. Thanks to Trust Yourself and the work I’ve done, I figured out a few hours ago that I’m distracting myself from my grief over my MIL. I am genuinely worried about losing the baby, too. So what do I need to do? Sit with my fears of loss. Sit with my grief. Write my MIL a letter. Let myself cry. Remind myself I am strong enough to handle all that life is throwing at us.

    • This is so beautiful to read, Anne, as it’s clear that you’ve deeply integrated the skills that you’ve learned through doing your own inner work. Sending you many blessings as you navigate your way through this love and grief-filled time. Strangely, it’s not unusual for births and deaths to coincide. It seems to be one of the unspoken laws of nature.

  • lee

    I hope this doesn’t come across as rude, because I truly am so grateful and astounded by your work. But I’m always doubting how ‘real’ the wounded self is? I never knew I even had a wounded self I suppose coming to terms with it is confusing :/ thanks for all Sheryl you’re fantastic.

    • Not rude at all. The concept of a wounded self is not my own! Since the time of Freud and Jung (and probably much earlier), we’ve known that we have different parts of our selves, and that one of these parts is our “ego” or “fear-based self” or “lower self.” Every spiritual tradition speaks of the same thing.

  • lee

    What does is mean if you sexually fantasize about other guys? :/

  • hayley

    Is there any way I could contact you for some insight about my situation and how it may apply to the course/if I should take it?

  • Anxious Flower

    Do you have any advice on dissociating/derealization/brain fog? I feel guilty when I start to dissociate as I feel it’s connected to my partner and I’m having a hard time connecting to him, which has then started the anxiety train again. Is it a form of perfectionism? Wanting to control my levels of stress??? I really don’t understand. If you have any free resources I could use, or if anyone does, I would really appreciate it. I guess my big fear in this one is that my partner is causing my dissociation and so my anxiety is saying “if you weren’t together you could concentrate on being present!” but I know I’ve dissociated in others’ company before, I just spend most of my time with my partner which is why I’ve noticed it so much I guess… I just can’t afford therapy so I’m learning on my own.

    • We dissociate when we don’t want to feel what lives in our bodies, so the antidote is to learn to turn inward and connect with what’s happening both in the moment and separate from the moment. If you’re in a healthy relationship, it’s very unlikely that it has anything to do with your partner, and the more you tell yourself that the more you’ll feed the mental loop that creates the dissociation! Learning to turn inward and connect to your body’s wisdom is exactly what my Trust Yourself program is about. If there’s any way you can take it it would be great for you.

  • hayley

    Thank you Sheryl. So basically when this all began i knew I loved him and could see how great he was, i was anxious beyond belief but knew I wanted to fight. But now all i see is his flaws and short comings and I question if its what i want (he isn’t the kind of guy who likes going out so i usually organize things, and he too struggles w anxiety and bad feelings). I always seem to find something and feel like i can’t or shouldn’t have to live with it and im wondering if it’s fear or a true issue. E.g he isnt overly affectionate, his humour annoys me sometimes. Thanks x

  • Silver

    There is something that prevents me from fully committing to my partner. We’re not even official in a relationship yet. But since being in a relationship is very serious I rather feel that there is still something missing, or fear of being tied down to one person for the rest of my life. Maybe one day I would leave because I would get bored or finally realized that I don’t really truely love her, or I’m too lazy to think the work inside of a relationship. I don’t know why but I am in a relationship in which my partner loves me but has trust issues because of my uncertainty, she’s possessive too and very jealous. I’m having too much projections but I know that they are

  • hayley

    Can relationship anxiety affect thoughts and feelings on sexuality.. i keep questioning it :/

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