When I was a child, I was afraid of doing anything wrong. The worst thing I thought that could happen was disappointing someone I cared about, getting in trouble or hurting someone. As a child, this trait made me obedient. As an adult, this trait made me a perfectionist.
What I didn’t understand as a young adult was that perfectionism is poison.
There is a pervasive belief that being perfect is a virtue – that if I do everything right, I will get what I want, or be rewarded, or win. Perfectionism, then, can become the driving force behind our work, our bodies and even our past times. While working hard and setting goals is not at all a bad thing, being motivated by perfection often is. The idea that if we are perfect we will succeed is a lie, and perfectionism itself is just a fancy form of fear.
Many highly sensitive people develop this perfectionistic trait for the some of the same reasons that I did as a child. Because us HSP’s are so sensitive to other’s needs, to criticism towards us, and to conflict, we tend to accommodate other’s needs first and do our darndest to be perfect individuals. The more perfect we are, the thought goes, the more control we have. The more control we have, the more comfortable we might feel, and the less likely we’ll face criticism.
Unfortunately, this game of using perfectionism as protection is inherently flawed. Because perfection doesn’t keep bad things from happening. And even worse, perfectionism does keep really good things from happening, like following creative goals and developing a healthy self esteem based in self-acceptance. Perfection keeps us small because perfection is just a fancy form of fear.
Yesterday I listened to this interview that Marie Forleo conducted with Elizabeth Gilbert. What Liz had to say about fear was absolutely spot on. She said something to the effect of,
Perfectionism is just fear in high heels. It seems dignified, like a virtue. But it’s not.
My experience of high heels is that they make you look and feel great for about an hour, but then your feet hurt and your back hurts and you walk silly and by the end of the day everything hurts but you feel this weird sense of accomplishment for pushing through pain in the name of beauty. It’s nonsensical. High heels do that to your fear and esteem, too – they hide your fear in someone’s ideal of beauty. They make you feel justified in your struggle to be perfect and make you push through pain that you could have avoided but have deemed necessary.
Perfectionism is not dignified. It is not a virtue. Perfectionism is just fear playing dress up.
Perfectionism hurts us as highly sensitive people because it creates a set of rules around our behavior, work, bodies, relationships and creativity. Usually, these rules are based on behaviors we’ve witnessed in others or that we think will keep us safe. Behaviors that seem “normal” or, in other words, non-sensitive. These rules act as a barrier, a boundary – on the surface, they seem to keep us safe. But what they really do is keep us small.
Highly sensitive people as a group have huge amounts of creativity. Ayurvedically speaking, sensitivity and creativity are both governed by vata dosha. As I teach in my Sensitive Self Defense courses, highly sensitive people have greater amounts of vata dosha in their constitution, especially in the nervous system and brain, which leads both to greater sensitivity and creativity.
Perfectionism is to creativity what what a corset is to the body – it keeps us exactly where someone, somewhere said we should be, but leaves very little room for us to breath, move, or bounce around.
Creativity is inherently mobile. It’s the ability we have to think outside of the box, draw outside of the lines, to do something differently in a way it hasn’t been done before. Creativity is saying yes, over and over again. Perfectionism says no and gives you a dozen reasons why.
If you want to be the ruler of your own world, you have to get rid of the rules. Especially for highly sensitive and creative types, if you want to live empowered, with freedom, perfectionism has to go. Rather than using perfectionism to drive you forward, use passion. Rather than let the rules of others or fear motivate you, use love. Love something so much that it must be created. Love yourself so much that you give yourself space to be you. Love your craft so much that you can have a courage to create something and get it out in the world, instead of having to be good at that thing first (because chances are, if you’re a recovering perfectionist, you’re already better at that thing than you think you are).
People ask me all the time how I got into the work I do. How did I make that leap, they ask? They tell me about these beautiful ideas for what they want to do and then give me all the reasons why they can’t do it. They have good, solid reasons, too. So practical. And at the end of the day, they are just fear. And they are fear in high heels.
One day I decided to put away the high heels and just have the fear. I made space for my fear and I talked to it. I thanked it, and asked it to sit down and take a back seat. I decided that completing something was better than perfecting something. I decided that if I kept believing in my perfectionism, I’d never do anything I really wanted to do. So I created some things and put them out there. Then I created more.
Fear doesn’t go away. Fear, and fancy fear, is just something we get used to living with. But just like anything, we can develop a better relationship with it so that it knows it’s place. My fear kept me from cliff jumping on a day with big waves. I was so grateful – it did its job. I thanked it. My fear wants to keep me from writing a book or developing my next program, and it has so many reasons. So each day, I thank it for its input and tell it to sit down in the back. And then I create something new.