I struggle when a situation isn’t perfect. You too?
When a relationship isn’t perfect— isn’t exactly what I want, isn’t exactly what I fantasized about, isn’t exactly what I expected— my brain often tries to tell me that it’s NOTHING that I want. That I HAVE to get out of it, the sooner the better.
When a business arrangement isn’t quite what I had in mind, my brain often tries to tell me that I’m in over my head, that business isn’t my thing, that I need to get out before I get taken advantage of.
When a day doesn’t go as I would have preferred, my nervous system often tries to tell me that there is nothing salvageable, nothing good about this day…and the ONLY way I can handle this TERRIBLE day having occurred, is to dive into a behavior that might be soothing— but which I know is ultimately self-harmful.
(More straightforwardly: my addiction uses the excuse of a bad day to see if it can get me to relapse.)
I know life isn’t perfect. My “rational” brain doesn’t EXPECT life to be perfect.
I know compromises have to be made in the course of real world living.
It’s not that I have a child-like insistence that everything be perfect or else I’m going to melt down.
But something unusual DOES happen when certain situations aren’t perfect that isn’t entirely about my “rational” mind.
When we grew up with complicated, often painful relationships in our lives, things not being “perfect” is sometimes more than an inconvenience. Things not being perfect can sometimes hit a sort of panic button in us…because it means something Really Bad might be about to happen.
There are people reading this who were punished when things weren’t perfect— even if it wasn’t their fault.
There are people reading this who truly fear— not with their “rational” minds, but something deeper— that if things aren’t “perfect,” they are going to be rejected, abandoned, or shamed.
All day long we are told not to be perfectionists.
But some people don’t quite know what they’re asking when they ask us to give up perfectionism as a kind of hypothetical safety net.
Perfectionism often isn’t about any kind of real world expectation or even a real world goal. It’s about anxiety.
It’s often about anxiety that we’re going to be blamed.
Sometimes it’s about anxiety that we’re going to be hurt.
Sometimes it’s about anxiety that we’ve failed, and we’re gong to experience the consequences of that failure — even if we can’t quite put words to why or how we’ve failed to make things “perfect” that we didn’t actually have any control over.
Almost nobody I know ACTUALLY expects themselves or the world to be perfect.
We know that human reality just doesn’t work like that.
But we also have this anxiety that rears its head when things AREN’T perfect.
It’s as if certain things going wrong in certain ways makes us regress. It’s like we become anxious kids.
Kids who feel like they’re in trouble…but can’t quite understand how, or what they’d need to do to be “good” kids.
All of which is to say: handling the imperfections and complications of life ma not come naturally to you— and it has nothing to do with your ability to actually handle life.
You may be getting triggered— and you need to know that being triggered by life’s imperfections is a more common occurrence then you may know.
The anxiety that gives rise to perfectionism is VERY common among people with abuse, neglect, or other trauma in their history.
As with any painful emotional experience, though, it’s up to us to meet it with compassion and patience.
We won’t get anywhere shaming ourselves for panicking or melting down.
We can only understand what’s actually going on if we’re willing to stay with ourselves when we’re anxious.
It’s a big ask, I know. My first response is to DO something, ANYTHING, to take away that anxiety.
Waiting that anxiety response out is both really hard— and really important.