A vast majority of the people I work with have identified as perfectionists, either in a general sense, or in certain aspects of their lives. I myself have also identified with this personality trait in various facets of my life. Recently, since so many self-proclaimed perfectionists have entered the therapy room, I have become fascinated by the unconscious motivations of perfecting the self and its role in staving off that dreadful feeling, loneliness.
With modern society offering us endless avenues to examine, compare, evaluate, compete with and critique ourselves and others, it is a natural adaptive response to conclude that the way to ensure acceptance by society and others is to make oneself infallible. But it is this thinking that gets us into trouble in the first place. Because the journey of perfecting the self is a rabbit hole, tricking us into thinking there will be a treasure chest underground, we sacrifice so much at its expense. Little do we know, the rabbit hole we fantasize about is devoid of treasure and consumed by darkness and solitude. What if the real treasure is all the stuff we cast aside in our quest for self-perfection? Our messes, our falls, our tears of sorrow, and tears of joy, our C+ grades, our heart breaks, our love stories, our time off, our laziness, our impermanence. In our quest to perfect the self, we become blind to who and what we shut out along the way. We are misled by a fantasy of belonging that steers us away from connection and deeper into isolation.
In graduate school, I was laser focused on being an A student, the first student to launch my own private practice, and a pioneer (of what exactly, I had no clue). My determination and drive, which friends and family often commended me for, kept me from actually knowing the majority of my peers. My priorities were clear, overcome each program hurdle successfully the first time around. “No time for playing around, grad school is serious,” was my mindset. It wasn’t until years after graduating that I came to realize how disconnected I was from my classmates, who were having social gatherings, playing softball, hosting cookouts, and cultivating a sense of “togetherness” while I buried my face in dissertation two summers before the due date. Needless to say, all of the grit and hard work did not spare me of failure, disappointment and fear.
In the summer before our fourth year, we were required to take five comprehensive exams, each comprised of two subjects, over the course of three days. It’s a mammoth of a task. Students spend several months doing nothing else but studying eight hours a day, seven days a week. If each exam is not passed within two tries, you’re kicked out of the program, no exceptions...no pressure. The comprehensive exams are the perfectionists nightmare, a true test of your caliber as a student. The morning before the statistics exam, I worked myself up into such a state that I was certain I was going to die before completing the task I had trained arduously for. Obviously that was not the case, but my heart palpitations would have suggested otherwise. When the exam results came out, I learned I had passed four of the five exams. I needed to re-take statistics. The months between the first failure and the re-take was one of the loneliest times in graduate school. Not only did I not have many peers to commiserate with, but my perfectionism had failed me (as it inevitably does), forcing me to sit with my shame and my human-ness.
Even for the most introverted of us, the need for human contact is essential to being and feeling alive. Oftentimes, the perfectionistic parts of ourselves can feel comforting to us, especially during the exhausting evenings of soccer practice, all nighters of report writing or the hunger pains of another diet. “This suffering will all pay off one day,” our perfectionist tells us, and we feel comforted by her reassurance. Except that relief rarely comes, and if it does, it is short lived. Eventually we are forced to contend with the fact that our drive to perfect the self, has robbed us of the very thing we wanted in the first place, connection with others and reprieve from the awareness that we are all ultimately alone.
To relinquish the inner-perfectionist is a painful process, filled with ambivalence and loss. It involves grief and surrender. But it also frees us from the shackles of expectation, judgement and competition that we as individuals and collectively have been bound to. Letting go does not mean eradicating, it does not mean cutting off, it means deciding which parts we want to retain and which parts are no longer serving us. It means questioning the utility of perfectionism when she shows up unannounced.
Consider the last time you felt emotionally connected to another, was your inner perfectionist present? It’s nearly impossible to feel simultaneously connected and lonely, yet both states are conditions of being alive. The greatest challenge to letting go of the wish to perfect the self is the ability to sit with our loneliness and use it cultivate deeper connections, richer relationships, and a fuller life with the time we are given on this earth.