Perfectionism: Recognizing the Fear Behind it and Stepping into Freedom.
Do you know the most important way to recognize counterfeit currency? It is to study and know the details of genuine currency. When I first heard this question this morning while listening to a sermon, I was a bit stumped. I did think of studying the real money, but I also thought that it would be smart to study the ins and outs of the fake money as well. The more I sat with the question, the more I realized that examining the genuine would allow you to recognize the counterfeit much quicker and with more accuracy. So, how does this idea relate to perfectionism?
Let's first define perfectionism. Perfectionism is the state of being perfect; being flawless, without any mistakes. That definition is a bit harsh, isn't it? However, it is exactly true. Now, that you have read the meaning of perfectionism, check in with yourself and examine your thoughts? Upon reading the definition, I immediately, thought, "I am not a perfectionist. I know I have flaws." But, do I sometimes get caught up in the web of perfectionism, absolutely, yes! Most everyone will get confused by this idea of striving for perfection. Most psychologists state the root of perfectionism is fear. Fear of what? Fear of not living up to someone else's standards. Fear of everything not being in your control. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of not pleasing someone else. Fear of failing. Fear of not being perfect. If we are honest with ourselves, we all fall prey to the unending pressures of being the best.
Fear ignites our mammal responses to come online. All day and night, our brains are processing messages coming in from our five senses. Those messages come into the relay system known as the egg-shaped thalamus, located in the midbrain region. Once there, the messages are then routed either to the amygdala in the limbic region or to the prefrontal cortex region. If the messages ignite the amygdala, then, there are three main fear responses that are generated. We either flee, fight or freeze. In other articles I have written, I go into more detail about our neurological system in response to when we feel frightened or threatened. Ideally, we want the messages to be routed to the executive center in the prefrontal cortex region in order to rationally think through the pending threat. Our brains can confuse us when faced with fear. I often use the toaster analogy to describe this process.
When you are toasting a bagel and a little drops to the bottom of the toaster, what can tend to come out of the top? Smoke. And, then the dreaded smoke detector's deafening sound begins. The only job of the smoke detector is to alert you that there is danger. It cannot recognize if the whole house is burning down or if there is just a piece of the bagel stuck in the toaster. Our job as humans is to see that it is not a true crisis, but just a controllable threat. Our amygdala is the smoke detector alerting you that there is danger. Our executive center in our prefrontal cortex region must come online to detect that the threat is not real, but more of an emotional threat. I do want to say that certainly the non-real threat can feel quite scary and even overwhelming at times. Also, the amygdala, just like the smoke detector, can save our life. If we are about to cross the street, and our sense of hearing alerts us that there is a truck barreling down the road, we want our amygdala to wake up and to shout at us to stop. When it comes to perfectionism, our brains can confuse reality and supposed dangers.
How do the fear responses play out when we get entangled by our desire to be perfect? Let's say you are faced with a possible new career opportunity or an invitation to begin a new hobby or a potential new relationship. Our brains can actually see any of those situations as possible threats. Familiar is safe; walking into the unknown can ignite all sorts of fears. Remember that our mammal responses to fear are to either freeze, flee or fight. In light of any of the above examples (and there are tons more), how do each of those fear responses play out when perfectionism haunts us.
Freeze - Fear can ignite our brain to go into freeze mode. We will feel paralyzed, as if
we are stuck in quicksand. Perfectionism kicks in and halts us from moving forward.
Some possible thoughts that may arise could be: "What if I make a mistake in the new
job? What if the new partner sees some of my flaws? What if I can't master the new
hobby quickly?" The "what if" question is the piece of bagel stuck in the toaster. Our
amygdala tricks us to think that moving forward will cause grave harm.
Flee - When faced with a new opportunity, our brain can become confused and cause
us to run away. Instead of starting the new hobby, we may run the other way and start
a safer option. If a friend would like to set you up on a date, you may tell the friend that
you are busy and flee to your familiar group of buddies. Even if you are not satisfied in
a job, the idea of not being perfect in the new position can cause you to run away from
Fight - Fear can drive us to fight in response. This type of fighting may take on the
form of questioning and accusing another. Because we may not feel that we will be in
control of a new opportunity, we will sometimes blame someone else for getting in our
way. This type of deflection is quite often one of the most hurtful in relationships.
We will often use words as weapons in order to feel more in control of a situation.
As the title of this article suggests, recognizing the fear is key to stepping into freedom. Imagine not waking up and being completely halted in your day by the threat of not being perfect. What would it feel like to actually embrace a new challenge without needing to be in control of never making a mistake. The compass to begin that new journey can be found within your soul. Do remember that that road is a marathon, not a sprint. There are turns and uphills and downhills along the adventure of letting go of perfectionism.
Self-acceptance is a key to the embarkment of this new journey. In order to begin to love yourself, being able to see the fears and the reactions of your body will help you to take this first step. Go back up to the mammal responses of freeze, flee, and fight. How do you relate to each of them? Which of the three do you tend to turn towards most often? We all react with all three responses at times, but typically there is one more dominant reaction. After surmising your more common response, try to identify what situations trigger freezing, fleeing, and/or fighting. Then, begin to meditate and/or pray about letting go of this need to control. Also, examine, what can you put into place to possibly help stop the unhealthy response? Would having an accountability partner be helpful? Maybe starting to work with a professional therapist or life coach to walk alongside you would be empowering. Journaling may help free up some headspace for more healthy responses to come online. Exercise and eating healthy can certainly be a foundation to running this marathon.
In conclusion, the wise words of Athena Singh, a young pro golfer, ring true, "Never trust your fears they don't know your strength." Instead of turning away from a challenge, face it head on. Know the ins and outs of your most strong and true self, so when the false beliefs surface, you can recognize them quickly and with more accuracy. In my research for this article, I came upon a Canadian author, Tim Challies, who studied recognizing counterfeit currency and the Canadian bank. His two-part series raises some thought-provoking points. By embracing our True Self, we will then be able to ward off the false beliefs that plague our minds when we are caught in the web of perfectionism.