“I have done my best. That is all the philosophy of living one needs.” ~Lin-yutang
Perfectionism—the word brings to mind images of order and
organization, of effectiveness and efficiency. This is what society
expects from a “perfectionist,” and this is what is projected as
desirable and attainable. There is an aspirational value to being a
However, I can vouch for the fact that it actually feels like being
caught in a trap. There is a feeling of suffocation and dread at not
being able to escape. The joy of living is sucked out leaving one
feeling inadequate and incompetent all the time.
I don’t remember how or when I fell into the trap. All I know is
that I have suffered the pain of trying to be the perfect daughter, the
perfect student, the perfect sister, the perfect friend, so on and so
And I remember the exact moment when I realized I was trapped.
It was when I was fifteen and in the tenth grade. In India, the tenth
grade examinations are considered extremely important. These are the
examinations that would decide whether or not I got into a college of my
I always did well academically, and needless to say there were
expectations from those around me to perform well in these exams. I had
to live up to these expectations—or so I thought.
That thought was enough to drive me into what was unarguably the
darkest period of my life. As a teenager I was already dealing with
issues of body image, being bullied, and trying to make friends
. Added to this mix, my desire to excel academically pushed me over the edge.
I cried myself to sleep. I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to run away from home.
I rebelled against my parents. I magnified even the smallest of my
mistakes and obsessed over imagined flaws in my personality. I simply
wasn’t good enough.
I was constantly depressed and wouldn’t tell anyone why. This worried
my parents, especially my mother. She took me to see a guru she trusted
in the hope that maybe he could help me.
The guru, a kind and wise man, just asked me one question.
He said, “I don’t know what troubles you have and you need not tell
me, but let me tell you that at your age life is relatively simple. Life
is going to get more complicated and the roles you will have to play
more demanding. If this is how you are now, how will you handle what is
That question opened the floodgates. I cried till I could cry no
more—not through sadness, but because I had the realization that I had a
problem and that only I could take charge and solve it.
I realized that I couldn’t go on beating myself up. It wouldn’t help me live my life fully and happily. I had to make a change and do it right away.
I started by voicing my concerns to my mother, who assured me that
neither she nor my father would stop loving me if I didn’t do well in my
exams. They loved me for who I am and not for what I did.
That in turn led to an exploration of who I was.
Perfectionism is largely a function of living up to expectations,
real or imagined. The key to overcoming it is to change those
To create my own realistic and achievable expectations—ones that
allow me to experience the joy of achievement without the feelings of
anxiety and inadequacy—I drew from my cultural background and knowledge
of cognitive-behavioral therapies.
The methods that I use to overcome my perfectionistic tendencies are as below:
Focus on the action, not the results.
One thing that I have learned from experience is that focusing on
results leads to needless anxiety and almost certainly guarantees
failure. Focusing on the action helps us to give our best to it in a
calm and peaceful manner.
In many ways this is similar to the concept of mindfulness. The key
is to stay in the here and now and be attentive to the present moment.
When we aren’t worrying about the future outcomes or past failures, we
are automatically freed to give our best to the present task!
Change your language.
It was one of my college professors who pointed out to me that my
language with regards to my mistakes was rather strong. I often used the
word “failure” to describe even the smallest mistake.
The moment this was pointed out to me I made an attempt to change my
language. Now I refer to my mistakes as “learning opportunities.” This
reframing of the words in turn reframed the way I felt and behaved when I
made an error. I am now more accepting of them.
I still feel bad, but not beat up. I am able to learn something from
my mistakes and make sure that they do not recur. In this sense being
more accepting of mistakes has increased my effectiveness.
This is just one example of how I’ve changed my language. Overall, I
try to replace every negative word with a positive alternative.
As it is said, what you focus on expands. So when I focus on
describing myself and my actions positively, it feeds back automatically
into whatever I’m doing, bringing out the best in me in a non-stressful
Enlist social support.
Escaping the perfectionism trap isn’t easy. I would often find myself
obsessing over small details, worrying about how things will turn out,
whether my work will be appreciated, and so on. Even now, after years of
practice, I sometimes find myself slipping.
I don’t even realize when I am like this, which makes it impossible
for me to take the necessary steps. Self-awareness is an essential
precursor to self-control. To ensure that I know when I’m slipping, I
have enlisted the support of trusted family members, friends, and
These people who know me well let me know when they think I’m having difficulty letting go
or when I seem to be thinking self-deprecatingly. Through external
dialogue with them, I am able to refocus my internal dialogue.
There will always be expectations that others have from us. The
difference between those caught in the trap of perfectionism and those
who are not is the extent to which these expectations are internalized
The latter realize that even though others have expectations of us,
hardly anyone expects perfection. Most often, others are willing to
forgive us when we make a mistake. We just need to learn to be kind and
forgiving to ourselves.
It is never too late to escape the perfectionism trap. Let us reclaim
the joy of living while still giving our best to the world!
Harish is a Learning & Development professional. She designs and
facilitates programs on Emotional Intelligence and Anger Management. Her
other interests are literature and mythology, from which she borrows in
her learning programs. She is also a writer and poet. Some of her
poetry can be viewed at http://hellopoetry.com/-vijayalakshmi-harish/
“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” ~Buddha
I’d like you to meet someone. He’s me and he’s not me. What I mean is, he’s inside me—a part of me.
story goes something like this: “I need to be the best at whatever I
do, but no matter how hard I work, I will never be the best because the
world is unfair.”
For most of my life he’s been carrying around this impossible task, and it has really weighed me down. He’s caused me a lot of pain and anxiety
, and sometimes I’d like to get rid of him.
Rather, some other part of me wants to get rid of him.
Now I’d like you to meet that other part. He’s me and he’s not me.
His story goes like this: “Ambition causes us nothing but pain. We
need to stop striving and devote ourselves entirely to a more spiritual
path, even if it means giving up some of the things we’re passionate
These two parts, both inside me, have had some knock-down, drag-out
fights, let me tell you. It can get so heated that sometimes I decide
it’s best to stay out of it.
And that’s part of the problem.
You see, we all have many parts inside us, and some have been with
us most of our lives. There are two things we don’t want to do in our
relationship with our parts, but which we tend to do: (1) let them take
over; (2) exile them.
Our parts mean well—they believe that they’re helping us—but often they operate out of shame and fear
. And so when we allow them to take over, they do more damage than good—despite their best intentions.
The part of me that operates through extreme ambition and competition
really does believe that he’s trying to protect me from experiencing
failure, disappointment, and shame. The part of me that operates through
extreme spirituality—almost competitively so—is trying to protect me
from the same things.
The spiritual part wants to get rid of the ambitious part, calling
him an ego-driven narcissist. The ambitious part wants to get rid of the
spiritual part, calling him an overbearing idealist. And neither wants
me to write about this—they’re much too invested in how others see me.
They shout at each other and make their cases, asking me to choose
one of them to be in charge of my life. When I become exhausted with
their fighting and choose one over the other, the exiled part only gets
louder and louder. Try to imagine them as two children having a battle
of wills, asking their parent to choose between them.
What these parts don’t know is that they’re not protecting me—my true self, who doesn’t know shame—but other parts of me, who have their own stories.
As you can see, it can get pretty crowded inside you. But over time,
you can get to know—and love—your most prominent parts. Here’s how.
1. Learn to recognize when your parts are trying to take over.
The warning signs are fear,
anxiety, shame, extreme anger, and other strong feelings of unease.
Rather than allowing these feelings to overwhelm you, or running away
from them, try to see them as messages from one or more of your parts that are asking for your attention.
2. Listen to your parts.
What they want before all else is
to have their stories heard by someone who will listen and understand.
They may want to tell you—or they may be afraid to tell you—when they
first showed up in your life and why. Your true self
, who is compassionate, calm, and curious, is the ideal listener.
3. Mirror your parts and validate that their stories make perfect sense given their life experiences.
I might say to one of my parts, “I understand why you see life as a
competition,” or I might say to another part, “It makes sense that you
want to go live in a monastery and meditate
all day.” There should be no buts, no reasons why the parts shouldn’t feel the way they do.
4. Show them compassion.
It’s almost always the case that
our parts are suffering, and have been for a very long time. They’re
often frustrated and exhausted and afraid. It goes a long way to say to
them, “Wow, that must be hard to carry around that burden all the time.”
5. Thank them for trying to help you—even if their methods haven’t always been the best ones.
The last thing you want to do is
scold a part for messing up. When we shame or exile our parts,
especially our darker parts, they have a better chance of taking over
our lives when we least expect them to.
6. Reassure them that you’re in charge and that you don’t need them to do their jobs anymore.
Try to remember that their impossible jobs—to be the best, to be
spiritually perfect, to avoid pain—have become burdensome, and they are
exhausted. They really do want to give up these jobs and turn things
over to you.
7. But our parts want to know that they’re still needed, and so you don’t want to fire them but give them new jobs.
For example, my ambitious part really is
good at working hard, and he can keep doing that, as long as he knows
that his job isn’t to be the best. And my spiritual part really is
good at connecting with a higher purpose, and he can keep doing that,
as long as he knows that it isn’t his job to be perfect or to banish any
8. Maintain a close connection with your parts.
Try to recognize them as soon as
possible when they show up—and they will, believe me. Our parts need
their stories to be heard again and again, maybe for the rest of our
I realize that all of this might
sound a little strange to you—talking about parts as if they’re separate
from us. In truth, they’re not separate, but sometimes we need more separation from them.
best way for your true self to be in charge is to separate from your
parts while letting them know that you’re still there, close by.
Because I’m a writer and have had
a lot of practice using my imagination, it’s been natural for me to
visualize my parts. They tend to look like me at the age I was when they
first showed up—usually when I was a child. Seeing them as separate
from me, especially as children, allows me to access genuine compassion
The work I’ve done with my
“internal family” has been some of the most important, rewarding, and
spiritual work I’ve ever done. I encourage you to be open-minded and
give it a try. It may turn out to be one of the best things you ever do.
is the author of two novels, "The Book of Why" (2013) and "A Fine
Place" (2002), and a short story collection, "If the Sky Falls" (2005).
Visit him on Facebook
and on Twitter
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