Are you a diehard perfectionist? Many of us are. Where does perfectionism come from? This post explores some ideas that may help you shed some light on this most pernicious and debilitating habit.
If you were to take the time to go into your feelings and body responses when your perfectionism rears it’s head, what would you find? Fear? Shame? A clamping down sensation? Anxiety? Dread? Resistance? Pay close attention to whatever you discover. Then try to remember the first time you felt those same feelings and sensations. Perhaps a memory comes up for you? If one appears, I’m guessing it’s an early childhood memory.
Childhood Experiences Form Our Adult Responses
I’m going to make a public confession by way of sharing an experience (one that I am not proud of!) that inspired this post. The other day, my nine year old son dropped a candle on the floor as he was trying to help get it in the candle holder. As if watching the whole incident from afar, I saw myself react with instant admonishments to take better care. We buy beeswax candles, which are relatively expensive, so my fear was that it had broken and would be unusable. Immediately my son erupted into defensiveness, declaring that it wasn’t his fault, and that he did nothing wrong.
While walking the dog the following morning, I found myself reviewing this incident in my mind. I felt that familiar sinking and sickening feeling of regret and shame in the pit of my stomach, and a heaviness in my heart. I know better than to react like that when anyone makes a mistake, especially a child! Children have not gained a sense of self that is immune to such attacks. Thinking back on my own childhood, I recalled similar experiences of being shamed for making mistakes. Unfortunately, we all have similar experiences in our past.
As I walked, carrying this burden of regret and shame, and admonishing myself for reacting the way I did, I had an ‘aha’ moment. I was yet again playing out the pattern of shaming and withdrawing love and affection as punishment for mistakes – this time toward myself for the mistake I had made in reacting so poorly toward my son’s mistake. No wonder people become perfectionists! It’s too terrifying to make mistakes when faced with such consequences!
Changing Reactions With Awareness and Compassion
I knew immediately that I needed to change this pattern! Instead of swimming in the guilt and shame, I chose to learn from my mistake. This post is part of my efforts to change my own learned habit. Writing or journaling about an experience really helps to process it and remove the emotional charge. This frees us to ask “What now?”.
My ‘what now?’ is to have a conversation with my son. After explaining my error and apologizing, I will demonstrate what a better response would have been to his dropping the candle. I could have responded with something like “Whoops! No harm done” – and then carried on.
Teaching him to give himself the same compassionate inner response when he messes up in the future will plant a seed – one that will hopefully grow into a healthy and life affirming response to making mistakes. And one that I hope will help him escape the curse of growing up to be a perfectionist!
Like water, if we go with the flow, we will approach life with much more ease and acceptance. A mistake or accident is simply an opportunity to learn to, so we can do things differently next time. If you’re a perfectionist, next time you make a mistake, try a self compassionate response, and be grateful for the learning opportunity that was made possible by messing up in the first place.