How our language around perfectionism is keeping us stuck
I want to talk more about the issues that I see in the mainstream conversation about perfectionism.
They shape our reality, our thoughts and they can even control our emotions.
As a marketer, book nerd, extra sensitive person, I pay extra attention to the words that we use in mainstream communication because I believe that they are a mirror to our collective minds (both the conscious and subconscious).
Remember when we could travel? One of my favorite things was to look at the ads on public transit. They tell me a story about the problems the city has but doesn’t openly admit to tourists.
Likewise, headlines and the keywords that pop up in my Google search tell me a story about how we *really* think about an issue.
Approaching perfectionism as something that has to be overcome is already a losing proposition. Oxford Dictionary has my back on this one:
- succeed in dealing with (a problem or difficulty).
- defeat (an opponent); prevail.
- (of an emotion) overpower or overwhelm.
I do not take this expression lightly, because I have walked in the shoes of perfectionism for a long time, and I understand how our brains are wired.
Perfectionism is a coping mechanism, which means that those attributes that are supposedly helping you get ahead in life are mere survival skills. Yup. I don’t care if you are the textbook definition of success. If you are a perfectionist, you are not thriving as a HUMAN being (remember, you are more than your labels).
Now, add the war-like language that we use and you can see how things take a turn for the worse. Your brain is already in survival mode, and now you are going into WAR to DEFEAT and CONQUER something that exists because you have unresolved trauma.
While you may tell yourself that you are going to “beat this” (again, war language) you already told your subconscious that:
- Your perfectionism is wrong.
- Your perfectionism is the enemy.
Perfectionism doesn’t exist outside of you, so effectively, you are in a war against yourself.
And what do we do with enemies?
We hate them. We destroy them. We make sure they know they are not welcome.
It is incredibly difficult, and I would say, impossible, to give yourself love, compassion and patience when the very words that you use to speak about your suffering is so violent and “all-or-nothing”.
That’s the psychological impact that war-like language has when we talk about mental issues.
In battles there are only winners and losers, so if you battle against you, there are literally ZERO scenarios where you would come out as a winner. A part of you will always lose.
So why do we do it? Why is no one correcting this? Are we just too tired and can’t be bothered with another debate about words?
What's appealing about this language is that it makes us into heroes. Sheer grit and willpower, defeat the demons, be your own hero, huzzah!
This “be your own saviour” ends up being extremely convenient on a mass scale.
You are at war against yourself, but you think you will win because you talk about defeating, conquering, overcoming...except, this is already a losing proposition. Inevitably, after all that effort fighting against yourself, you will end up having a dark night of the soul, wondering if you will see another day.
If you are lucky, you survive that dark night and try again.
But, if you don’t interrupt that thought pattern, that your perfectionism has to be defeated, you will find yourself going around in circles, wondering if your perfectionism can be cured at all.
For decades, this was my life.
I could not see through the lie. I did not understand that I had zero chance of making it through because my perspective was already poisoned.
How did that affect me?
While I wore a mask of the self-sufficient, independent woman….my emotional self was like a baby seal, desperately wanting to hide from the vicious clubbing of my inner critic. This was too much to handle already. I did not have space for anything else.
I could not envision having a partner.
I could not see why people befriended me in the first place.
I could not understand how people thought I was intelligent and capable.
Eventually, I burned out. I got tired of fighting. I dropped the gloves, and accepted that I was not meant to thrive. I was not meant to do meaningful work, having a purpose was a lie, there was no way to rise above and contribute to the world.
This fight drained my spirit.
And when that happens on a mass scale, when many of us keep getting stuck in this loop and eventually get exhausted... there is no hope for the next generation.
This is why I say that perfectionists cannot change the world. Even the highly functional ones are operating from a place of scarcity and war, and that mindset will be reflected in their decisions.
Perfectionists are not seeking to use their gifts and talents and take them to their maximum expression. It’s not that they don’t want to. They have lost the capacity to dare and imagine. The inner critic beat it out of them.
They are just looking to do enough so they are not exposed as frauds. So, the decisions they make will always be safe.
To do what is seen as good, acceptable, and sensible, not what is aligned with their soul.
To live without ruffling any feathers, and that means accepting the status quo...which, if you haven’t noticed, is literally destroying us and the planet.
If your soul hasn’t been completely drained, you might fool yourself into thinking that your lukewarm commitment is better than nothing. Post a little black square, send thoughts and prayers on Twitter, ditch the straws, judge everyone who is not woke.
So, even if we think the world is fucked up, we adapt to its fuckedupness. That’s all that we can do, because we haven’t learned how to get out of the mental trap of perfectionism.
If this is your struggle, the first thing you can do is change your language.
This is not something to be conquered. This is a wound that needs to heal. As such, it needs time, space, and care. It needs to be seen. This is why I am sharing my story so publicly. When people search for information about perfectionism, they are not looking to save their souls.
That’s not how they are seeing the issue.
They are just bothered that they cannot be as extraordinary as other people.
No judgement here. I know that, because that was me.
I wanted to feel good enough so I could be a superstar scientist.
I wanted to feel worthy so I could be on a Forbes magazine cover one day.
So I could be a profile with a blue check mark.
The only war-like word I’d use to speak about perfectionism is that it is an emotional CRISIS. And that’s only because I want to use a word that will hit you in the gut.😛
Too many of us believe that we don’t have what it takes. We cannot afford this at any level - we cannot afford talent being watered down, we cannot afford to play safe when the planet is on fire.
We need to be more loving, and we need to ditch the cult of the hyper-rational, “I am my own heroine”. We need to find our way back to our emotions, and let those wounds heal.
So what now? I don’t want to give you listicles and step-by-step guides...that’s not how it works. Becoming oneself is a never ending process.
What I can do is give you a way to rewrite your story so you make peace with the past, see the beauty of your survivor years, and recover your capacity to dare and imagine a better life for yourself and those around you.
Once you are able to love the shit out of yourself...no conditions attached...THAT’S when the transformation begins. You’ll be unstoppable. Finally, your heart, soul and mind will be aligned...and I can’t wait to see what will come out of that.