Friday, July 28, 2023

Escaping the Web of Perfection

Lately I've been thinking about why we get stuck. I'll apologize in advance, this post is being written in the middle of the night, but hey, if you can relate to my journey of learning to let go of perfectionism, there might be something in here for you.

Before we get into all my rambling, the main takeaway is this: go as big as you want with your life, but find joy in the little things. Some people don't need this lesson, but it took me years to figure it out. Lots and lots of years. Anyway, here we go.

Perfectionism traps us in a cycle of unrealistic expectations.

We love stories about The Chosen One. Although this trope has savior-based themes, there’s a more Arthurian ideal to these stories than there are biblical principles. The comic book heroes in TV and movies have dozens of forms of this trope, and of course Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and others show a main character with either singular powers or a destiny that forces them into a quest to save the world, the universe, the multiverse, or reality itself.  

Only YOU can save the world from Voldemort, Harry.

In TV and movies, there are hero and villain versions of perfectionism that depict unattainable strength and capacity. My favorite trope for villains is the One-Winged Angel, a fantastic villain with an alter ego of an other-worldly monstrosity. Sephiroth, the namesake of this trope, has his bizarro form, and his seven-winged angelic form, which complement his already intimidating human form. The villain is the ultimate barrier between the hero, and a peaceful world. Once defeated, the world can finally return to equilibrium. Of course, the villain is obsessed with his legacy, and may or may not have a ridiculously long lifespan, perhaps even an obsession with immortality. I’m looking at you, Emperor Palpatine.

"I will never be a memory." - Sephiroth

In reality, we mere mortals blur the lines between fiction and reality all the time. I’ve taken a lot of music history classes, and looking back the narratives in those history books were really depressing to me. Prodigies like Mozart, and Mendelssohn, or unspeakably dedicated masters like Beethoven or Brahms are on such a high pedestal that 200 years later people drool over their musical creations. We struggle to comprehend how much back-breaking work is required, not to mention the bio-psycho-social lottery at play in the production of genius-level creative work.

On top of that, as a musician, you’re expected to strive toward impossibly high standards, and keep a mental catalog of performance based norms that guide your many, many hours of practice. Every rehearsal and every performance requires Olympic levels of concentration and awareness. And then musicians at these high levels of world-class performance just live there. The career-span of professional musicians may be longer than that of professional athletes, but the cost maintaining that level of performance often goes unspoken, because we might think twice before setting out on that journey if we truly knew from the beginning what it would take to succeed.

The quest for near-perfection can be exhilarating, but it is absolutely exhausting. This is part of why my professional music career morphed into a career in mental health. I earned a master's and doctorate in music performance at a big ten university, but in the midst of that work, my mental health was plummeting. I became much more fascinated in the language and art of building a healthy mindset because of all the therapy I had to do to maintain what sense of well-being I could still muster in my quest to graduate, and become a music professor.

I realized that I was living with a hustle culture mentality that was being glorified and praised, despite the fact that being a single-minded musician was a big part of the recipe for my silent internal anguish.

In fiction, unrealistic expectations are the undercurrent that props up the drama and wonder on both sides of the morality spectrum. To fight an out-of-this-world villain, you need a superhero. In real life, our roles are labeled with different words, but I’m afraid we put similarly fictitious expectations on ourselves.

For me, perfectionism was a constant demand for work with no access to fulfillment. It was a personal quest to reach a final yard line that inexplicably kept inching farther away.

Perfectionism is very event oriented. It might seem to be based on skills and progress, but in truth it is about scoring a hit from an imaginary audience. Perfectionism is an addiction to the dream of being good enough, better by comparison, or freedom from human weakness. Even a huge success can be ruined by a tiny flaw, no matter how trivial. Perfectionism has a childish tendency to blow up over even the most innocent reality check.

Is there any escape from this web? I’ll tell you what has worked for me.

My perfectionist journey is still with me all the time. I’ll probably always have the tendency to be hard on myself for little things. But practice in basic gratitude and acceptance shifts the value from achievement to processes.

Instead of rewarding myself just for completing big goals, I reward myself for the simplest, smallest bite-size tasks that lead the way to reaching those goals. For example, I give myself a pat on the back just for opening my computer, instead of beating myself up for only typing fifty words instead of one-hundred. I acknowledge that getting out of bed in the morning is one of the hardest parts of my day, rather than focusing on the fact that I slept in an extra twenty minutes after my alarm went off. The shift from self-criticism to compassion has been slow, discouraging, and very quiet. But it has made a huge difference. Getting out of bed in the morning has become easier. I have more reasonable expectations for myself, and other people. I laugh more. I am more confident. I even have more energy for work and my family. 

I kid you not, perfectionism can be an enormous challenge to your mental health. 

Making the transition to a more intentional perspective with gentle expectations and detachment from the outcome of your goals can seem like giving up, or choosing weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth. The reality for me was that my perfectionism was motivated by fear. I was terrified I would never be good enough. I had to prove to people I was smart, funny, lovable, strong, and I was obsessed with any evidence that people could see my true humanity or weakness. Showing of my strength was not really about impressing people or getting their praise. It was what I did to prevent them from rejecting me, to avoid ever being told I was worthless. Of course, by constantly obsessing with maintaining a campaign to prove my self-worth, I had a really hard time relating to anyone on an authentic level. Look no further than Azula for an example of how obsessing about perfection is a recipe for a mental breakdown.

Perfectionism makes you deeply insecure. The idea of being normal sounds like a wonderful break, but the idea of losing what makes you “special” feels unbearable.

But that’s just it. Human worth itself is not achievement or even behavior based. Paychecks, concerts, research papers, harvests, awards ceremonies, all these events are a little blip on the journey of life. Of course if we glorify these moments to the point of neglecting the entire path to getting there, the path starts to feel like drudgery and we would rather skip our way through it to get to the good part. But what if the good part IS each step after step after step of getting from one milestone to the next?

Journey before destination.

Our worth is the constant. However, our beliefs and behaviors have a huge impact on whether we feel well or worthless. Perfectionism isn’t unhealthy because high expectations are a bad thing. It’s unhealthy because it sucks away our ability to find happiness along the way. It’s a continuous dissatisfaction with reality, ideas about how awful it is to be average, have human flaws, to fall short in any way of our dreamed version of the way things SHOULD be. Perfectionism is a sense that black and white is all there is, and people are just a bunch of winners and losers. Perfectionists never stop competing, training, fighting, strategizing, and they cannot ever accept defeat. They hustle themselves from one obsession to the next.

Yet, there are many people out there whose days are filled with small miracles. They fulfill roles at every level of society quietly and confidently, because they are comfortable focusing on the process instead of the outcome. They keep themselves moving in the right direction because each step matters, including the steps they take to care for themselves and others along the way. They can admit their faults because they don’t have to compensate for them out of fear. They are able to delegate when it’s best to do so, and when it’s time to burn the midnight oil, they do it, with a deal that they will get more sleep the next few nights and not feel guilty. In contrast to team Azula, team Avatar find ways along their journey to find little joys, and bond together, despite many moments of falling short.

We’re all just humans in this world. And just being human is glorious. We are each the hero of our own journey. The big bad guy at the final boss level isn’t conquering the world with eldritch horror, he’s undermining our ability to find true and abiding satisfaction through our relationships and daily routines. The villain in our lives isn’t our human weakness, it’s the happiness trap that says you’re failing if your life isn’t constantly maximizing. We conquer that bad guy when our ability to accept reality with gladness expands.

Last Sunday we had a discussion surrounding this talk. It's a beautiful ten-minute piece on allowing things as they are to take on divine meaning. We can see the hand of God in our lives without pushing ourselves constantly passed the point of diminishing returns. I looked around the room full of adult men, and it seemed every one of them could relate to the theme of perfectionism, often very deeply. I would hope that all of us will find more compassion for ourselves first, and take moments to acknowledge that life is hard. What a great idea it is not to make it harder for yourself, except in the direction of finding real, enlivening fulfilment.

Men are that they might have joy. And there are so many ways to really be happy and joyful. You don't need to be a superhero. Chances are more than one person in your life sees you as a hero, just because they watch you being you. That is good enough.

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