It’s in the dim interior of your mind where old coping mechanisms sleep. I guess they figure they can do what they want since they’ve got seniority. They protected you for a long time and saw you through some scary shit. And they worked! Until they started messing with your marriage, fueling depression, or worse, undermining your self esteem.
I had this quote, taken from the Preface of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, hanging in my therapy office for many years:
I wanted to remind both myself and my clients that we can go off script. There is freedom ahead. I invite you to reexamine the following concepts. Perhaps something has never sat right with you, like a pebble in your shoe. Or maybe it’s more now – what you were told, overtly or covertly, now brings you pain. There are risks so please do not discard blindly. It wouldn’t work anyway – we revert back to default patterns if we don’t replace the old with a reliable new. Examination is key – remain curious while you challenge how an old way serves you and what new possible ways make sense. What follows is what I’ve figured out from my own inquiry.
It’s been said that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I didn’t understand this eloquent quote for a long time until I add the element of judgement to complete it. Judgement is hierarchical, tinted with spiced emotion, and conveys a message to listener about what they should value. It states an opinion as if it is an objective fact: ‘I wouldn’t let my kid get away with that.’
Usually, it elevates the speaker to a position of knowing. Judgement makes us feel good in its authoritative rightness, puffing up our importance. But it’s a trap. Whenever we buy into the notion of better than/less than, naturally assigning ‘better than’ to ourselves, there’s always the dark side of the coin. Looking at the world through this lens will inevitably force us to assign ‘less than’ to ourselves when, expecting others to use the same simplified system, we fall short of the mark.
Both comparisons are artificial but momententarily, we are convinced. Take the statement, ‘I wouldn’t let my kid get away with that.’ Loaded in these few words is some erroneous, objective truth of one true way a parent should act in every context – that parenting rules can be universally applied. What we don’t know is vast – what kind of day has that kid or parent had? Does the parent know what to do? Is illness or recent trauma in the mix? Has the parent already tried every dang strategy with this kid? The truth is, we think we know what’s happening but we only see the tip of the iceberg. Our judgmental comment reveals more about us than the situation.
There is a vast difference between judgement and evaluation. I think of this as a paradigm shift in thinking from hierarchical (better/worse than) to flat (different). When evaluating, we gather objective facts that cannot be argued and from there, determine how close or far away from how we think or feel, what we like or don’t like, or our preferred actions in a situation. It removes the emotional tinge while retaining your ability to like or dislike, untangling opinion from fact. The example I use with clients highlights the absurdity:
Better than/Less Than:
‘I love pizza. It’s the obviously better choice over cheeseburgers. You’ve got bad taste.’
‘I love pizza and prefer it over cheeseburgers. But you love cheeseburgers. Luckily the world has both.’
Someone’s kid may be running around a restaurant, making noise and creating havoc. Yes, it’s annoying and there’s a lot of things parents could do to make it stop. Maybe they don’t care about your annoyance and are selfish but more than likely, it’s not personal. Maybe they never go out to dinner because of the kid and they’re tired and embarrassed. They’ve tried everything and frankly, they’re about to leave. Empathy is a great tool in these moments. The beautiful thing about empathy is that the more you practice it for others, the more you get it for yourself.
Regulating vulnerability relies on a sense of internal boundaries. This can be a tough concept to wrap your head around, so to speak. We all have a belief system about what is acceptable and what is not regarding both our own and other’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. This may be similar but also may vary wildly, from how we actually behave, think or feel or accept from others in a given situation. I’ll illustrate this with two examples.
“I’d leave you if you ever cheated on me!” This is a declaration from spouses everywhere. The truth is that 70 percent of couples choose to rebuild the relationship after infidelity. Obviously a private choice, each couple varies in their success. My point is that we often think we know how or what we’ll do until we get there. Rigid or ‘bulletproof’ boundaries give the illusion of safety. However, like a cardboard wall, they only look the part until it rains.
Another example of how we try to manage vulnerability is what I’ve started to call the ‘wounded bird defense.’ Some use it preemptively and other as a response in conflict but the effect is the same: don’t hold me accountable. “I know you’re upset about what happened but I’ve had a really rough day today.” Fragility defends the person from any sort of ‘attack’ as it sets up the speaker for guilt. It signals that continuing the healthy conversation is actively harmful.
These two defenses are like many: sides of the same coin. Defenses themselves are not bad unless they are overused or in this case, inaccurate. Defenses defend – but what are they defending? In these examples, being bulletproof or fragilely wounded is defending vulnerability that lacks the ore sophisticated network of defenses that operate with confidence and higher self esteem. The result is to reinforce a false and disempowered view of oneself. These deceptive defenses start to crumble under the pressure of actual events.
As a recovering perfectionist, I can recall many times when I chose endless revisions to an email or school paper over sanity. Through the illusion of polished prose, I was driven to safeguard my respectability with critique-proof performance. A+++++++ Even today, ‘Tell me I’m good,’ and ‘Please don’t tell me I’m bad,’ still whisper to me. I labored with the awareness that my cup could be filled or emptied by the assessment of others. A thoughtfully worded comment on a paper was briefly considered for framing. A jab of shame interred the B+ paper to a box in the basement, constructive criticism vacated in my hopeless irredeemability.
One day, as I was walking to one of my college classes, I was struck by a thought that would pivot my view on perfectionism. Translating letter grades to descriptive terms, a “C” is the average. Meaning, this is the generally expected performance on most tasks. It followed that a “B” was very good and an “A” was excellent – more rare. I felt I’d been duped. I’d been taught (as we all are), that more is better. A smart kid, I did well until high school when attendance became an issue. My grades naturally declined and I’d hear the refrain, “Grades don’t reflect her ability if she applied herself.” Later, as a professor, I’d be validated by the true, arbitrary nature of grading. This gradually lead me to accepting the principle of ‘good enough.’
When I propose the ‘good enough’ idea to my perfectionistic clients, the initial interpretation is messiness is failure. But I persist; we have a limited amount of time, energy and attention to devote to tasks and cannot be an expert (A+ student) in everything. Therefore, we must specialize. This specialization creates subject matter experts as well as a diverse society and world. Prioritizing what is most important to us allows room for this expertise but requires that we de-emphasize other tasks to make room for it. If we try to do it all, inevitably the limits of time, effort and attention will degrade the excellence and result in mediocrity in everything. I recommend the following breakdown: 10% excellence, 30% very good, 50% good enough, and 10% growing edge. Here’s how I prioritize my efforts (subject to revision):
Excellence (10%): Wife, Mother, Psychologist to my Clients
Very Good (30%): Best friend duties, Household, business and administrative obligations
Good Enough (50%): Household chores, finances, cooking, remembering things, cleaning, exercise and eating right
Growing Edge (10%): Better care of my health, continuously evolving, challenging and educating myself, meeting the next stage of demand in parenting
Whatever you call it – messy, good enough, failure, imperfect – seems unacceptable and chaotic at first. Give it a chance. There’s freedom and order to be made. My cup is nearly continuously full these days. It’s not because I’ve proving to others how awesome I am or getting a regular supply positive critiques. I made a shift; the first person to impress is myself. If my product makes it past my personal QA checks, critique, constructive or otherwise, comes after. I trust myself and my opinion. I would read and enjoy what I wrote. Others likely have suggestions that would teach me and improve my writing. If I’ve requested feedback, I welcome it. It’s more likely that comments (especially unsolicited ones) are loaded with an agenda. Most agendas are sweet and the feedback makes the giver feel good. Some agendas need to be quarantined and inspected as the words are well coded daggers laced in legitimacy.
It comes down to owning and expressing your own sense of reality. Imperfection is real for every single person. You are already imperfectly perfect. Perhaps this is a positive and preferred state. I’d argue that we need messiness like we need a junk drawer in our house. As long as it doesn’t take over, it’s useful for throwing random stuff in there you might need or don’t know what to do with yet. It holds the things you might not want to throw away but are not sure where they go. Periodically, you clean it out. You need a little space to grow into things because despite yourself, you’re always growing.
You may have read this article and saw yourself in all or some of it. I actually kinda hope you did. The good news is these are well worn paths which means there’s lots of ways to feel better. You have to know yourself before you can plot a course and change. It’s painful to face these truths but it won’t feel this way forever. I am so glad you’re educating yourself. That’s definitely how I always feel better when I’m struggling. Love, acceptance, and peace is available to everyone in abundance. You’re that much closer to reaching out and grabbing your share.