This past semester, in the college class I teach, we were working with ways to challenge some of the negative thoughts and beliefs that we hold. The ones that we do not question; having somehow, unfortunately, become acclimated to them. Even though they drive us, and even though they define how it feels to be alive.
To highlight for the class how this process of challenging an existing belief might look like, we began by using one student’s thoughts as an example. It seems he was about to play a big event as a D.J.; something he had been thinking about and hoping for, for quite some time. But now, standing on the edge of everything he most wanted, he was so worried that for weeks he had not slept well. He just couldn’t stop thinking negative and catastrophic thoughts about himself and how the night would go. Needless to say, he was in no way enjoying the prep required to get ready for something he really, really wanted.
As we got into it more, it quickly became obvious that something was driving the worry. Some thought pattern that hovered just below his awareness, but that he was able to access by naming out loud some of his fears. The biggest one being, that he was terrified that if he was not absolutely flawless, that if he botched even one thing, then his big chance would be ruined, and he would never again work in his chosen field.
No wonder he could not sleep. No wonder he had no joy in the lead up. How could he given the oppressively high stakes he was living under? How could he given that he had left no room for circumstances beyond his control? How could he given that he had left no room for his humanness? No room for even one tiny, never mind big, mistake. In a word, he was under the intense sway of perfectionism.
Do you know this one? The do or die necessity that it has to be just so? Or else…
As difficult as it can be, one of the most fruitful places to go to is the “or else.” As in “or else what?” Doing this gives us access to that very particular type of survival fear that sits just behind the driven quality of why it has to be just so. That ancient imprint that tells us we are in danger somehow if we do not get it exactly right. The same part, by the way, that most needs, more than anything else, to know that it is safe and loved; no matter what.
And that being flawless is not a criteria for the right to exist.
And so, when perfectionism shows up in your life, instead of falling under its sway, could you be willing to challenge it? To name the fear that drives it by asking the question “Or else, what exactly?” and then being willing to say out loud what you are most afraid of. Better yet, speak this out loud to another person; plain and simple. No rationalizations. No, “I know this is silly.” No letting yourself indulge the fear. Just a naming.
Maybe this sounds too easy, but I will tell you, there is something profoundly transformational about saying a fear out loud, as opposed to letting it fester and grow in strength. Just beneath the surface, and just compelling enough to define our lives in exactly the wrong way.