Step 6: Became ready to change by giving up the demand to be perfect
When you read that we’re going to tackle your perfectionism, do you hear a voice say, WOWSA, I’ve been waiting for this? Or is there a tiny groan bubbling up that you fear may get caught in your throat and choke you?
The Promise of Perfectionism
Our social isolation is causing us to spend lots of time in our own heads. Even if we are isolating with family, being distracted by work, being humbled by trying to homeschool our kids at the same time, our minds are often our only escape. Unfortunately, what we’re finding here is not pretty. One of the most common and least helpful of these beliefs is the need to be perfect.
In writing about this step, I confronted my own need for perfectionism as an inner Ghost from Crises Past reared her head. What is interesting is that when I worked on perfectionism for my first book on self-parenting, this was my favorite step. Perfectionism! I rejoiced. Yes, I wasn’t paying attention to how much of an issue this continued to be—until now, that is. In revisiting my early work as I reconceived these steps and adjusted the message for our current global crisis, I found myself struggling again with the demand to be perfect—not only for myself, but also for you, my readers.
We are all receiving numerous messages about how to perfectly isolate socially, how to perfectly work at home while homeschooling our children, how to perfectly stay connected to children we cannot hold and to loved ones we cannot kiss. Our demand to be perfect is again incapacitating our need to be human, just as it did for many of us as children.
Perfectionism: The Golden Ring
Perfectionism is the ultimate golden ring. We feel if we can just be perfect, all of our problems will be solved, including the stress brought on by COVID-19. All problems. One answer. Sound crazy? So is our belief that we can be perfect.
Believing in perfection borders on the type of magical thinking found in young children, where they either believe they are to blame for everything that happens around them, or that they have superhuman powers and can tame dragons.
In adult women, perfectionism sounds like this: If only I were thin enough, I’d be beautiful, which I’ve labeled as a toxic girly thought in my books. Then he’d be happy to be quarantined with me alone for six to twelve weeks is another. In men, this desire for perfectionism can come out as berating yourself for being frightened when you hear of a coworker becoming ill, as screaming at yourself to Man up, and stop being a baby when you find tears welling in your eyes as you binge on Netflix. Meanwhile, if you’re a parent, you’re juggling to keep all the balls of your life from hitting the ground—keeping your children housed and fed and educated, staying positively connected to your partner, who is having their own struggles, all without sweating, without showing too much stress, all while staying optimistic.
Why are we doing this to ourselves?
Perfectionism = Self-Protection
Perfectionism is driven by feeling the need to control everything to protect those you love. If you grew up in a home with numerous problems, your magical thinking probably made you both the cause of the problem (you walked in front of the TV, causing your father to yell at your mother), and the only solution (you, and only you, were to take perfect care of your mother so that she couldn’t be hurt).
Perfectionism and control may have become part of your identify, how your inner child understood the world. But you’re not a child now. While you can literally hold this part of you (Step 5), you do not need to have your inner child make the adult decisions facing you today.
Being Perfectly Imperfect
How about allowing yourself to acknowledge how complex life is now, redefining in the process what perfectionism really means. What if perfectionism means learning how to accept and care for yourself? What if a gift you can give to those you are quarantined with—your partner, children, those you Facetime and Zoom with—is modeling this heightened awareness of self-care? What if it became acceptable to use this time to grow your own resilience, using your discomfort to gain new skills? What if you stopped trying to live according to some artificial standard? What would happen if you embraced being perfectly imperfect?
Begin with Your Personal Safety Plan
Why introduce a safety plan now? Because if you are going to challenge this important central organizing principle, then you need to know that you can both change and be safe.
I always recommend that a safety plan should begin with noticing and recording in writing which parts of your body speak to you when you are tense and are alerting you to take certain actions. I’ll guide you in fleshing this out in the following steps, providing self-care strategies you’ll want to consider, but for now let’s begin by doing a body scan.
Ask yourself where you are feeling tense right now.
- Is there tension in your head? Neck?
- Is your chest tight?
- Are your hands clammy?
- Is your stomach tight or queasy?
- Are your legs bouncing?
- Are you suddenly sweating, or cold?
There are many ways our bodies speaks to us; the trick is to listen, because if you listen to your body, your body won’t need to keep trying to get your attention, which is what causes you to react and do or say things you can’t take back.
Exercise for Today
Begin your own Personal Safety Plan by writing out your body scan. Do this daily. It’s quick and should take less than a minute.
- Settle yourself: in a chair, while standing as you’re cooking, as you gaze at the computer, while you are trying to figure out how to help your child do the new math.
- Close your eyes, gently, as you take one deep breath in to the count of four.
- Notice where you are holding tension.
- Breathe out to the count of seven.
- Take another deep breath, sending this intentional breath to the area of your body that is tense.
- Hold for a count of three.
- Breathe out to the count of seven
- Notice how you feel.
- Repeat if necessary.
Make a note in your journal about how this works for you, and feel free to share it on my new Facebook Group, Self-Parenting in the Age of COVID, which I invite you to join by clicking on the link. There you can post your struggles and solutions as we create community. I invite you to share the blogs and posts you find on the Facebook Group by tagging those you know and care about, whether they are in recovery or just loved by you.
This is the sixth of a twelve-part series based on The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting. More tips will be available in my soon-to-be-published ebook, and are available on my blog, The Powerful Woman.net, and in my current books: Healing Trauma Through Self-Parenting, The 12 Steps to Self-Parenting for Adult Children, and The Resilient Woman. Learn more Learn more about my work as a consulting psychologist and speaker at www.patriciaogorman.com.