I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life. It’s a really crippling trait to have. So many awesome projects were never started or died in the crib because of this trait. So many life-serving impulses were not followed, so many things were not said. I recently realized that perfectionism really is a defense against the horrible pain associated with the notion of “not being ok”. What if someone sees what I’ve created, what I’ve done, and lets me know that I am fundamentally flawed for making such a ridiculous thing, whether it be a blog, a painting, a status-update on facebook or the way I move on the dancefloor. The emotions that arise even at the thought of that are some of the most intense and scary ones that I can imagine. In a sense it really seems to be about the threat of annihilation. Being seen as not ok seems to be able to trigger something close to a fear of dying. There is a perception of something really intense that I urgently want to get rid of and that at many occasions makes me want to disappear altogether.
Evolutionarily this makes perfect sense, since for most of our history as humans not being accepted by our group was pretty much equal to death. If we were not viewed as acceptable members of the group we were most likely expelled. This would mean death or at least most likely a profoundly unenjoyable life since we are deeply social creatures. When I was bullied in school I was not really faced with death. Our genetical conditioning has not changed as quickly as our life circumstances, however, so that sort of exclusion and the consistent message of “you are not ok” probably triggered a fear of annihilation in me at the time. In any case it led to intense discomfort and a strong fear of rejection that I’ve continued to carry with me throughout my life.
Perfectionism has surfaced very strongly in my attempt to write this blog. It is close to impossible to get to a satisfying result when I want things to be perfect. I brought up this topic with my coach. He said: “Let’s go towards that which is most threatening!”. He recommended me to really be with the intense emotions associated with not being ok when they show up. Actually, he recommended that I would do that with all kinds of intense emotions, both the positive and the negative. He suggested that I’d take a break when things get really intense and just be with what I feel, ride the wave until it passes.
This does two things, according to him: Firstly, it increases our ability to be with intense emotions. They get less threatening, we know that we can do whatever we need to do regardless of what we feel. The second thing is that it gives our body a possibility to metabolize the experience. If we do not allow ourselves to feel, what happens is that these emotions get stuck in the body until they are felt through and released.
I’ve been doing that a whole lot during this past week. Several things have happened. I have had a more vivid experience of aliveness throughout the week. I’ve felt more. I’ve also noticed myself doing things without trying to control the outcomes as much as before. There simply has been more trust in that I can be with whatever kind of negative emotions that might arise as a result of how people respond to my actions. This gives me more freedom since I do not have to protect myself from the pain of not being ok at all cost.
For example, yesterday evening I sent a message to a friend to express some appreciation. This is something I do not do very often since it arouses exactly this fear of not being ok. What if she finds my message really pathetic. Maybe my words do not touch her at all. Maybe she misinterprets my intentions thinking that I’m flirting with her rather than just sharing some honest appreciation. Anyway, there was a sense of aliveness connected to pressing the send button and a sense of boring safety connected to deleting it, so I sent it. I did not get any response from her so far today. I have assumed that it probably did not land in a sweet spot in her. Maybe one of the fears I mentioned above was true. At several times when this has come up during the day an intense sensation of shame has arisen. However, I have not tried to suppress it or get rid of it. I have let it be, riding the wave, and every time the wave has turned out to pass swiftly and not to be dangerous at all. The sense I get is that being able to be with my emotions in this way really increases my freedom. Since I get more confident that I can be with my reactions I can also take greater risks. Maybe I will even be able to publish this blogpost without working it until perfection!
Higher stages of development are central to this blog, so how does this tie in with that topic? Here’s some thoughts on that. In the unitive stage of development we live very close to experiential reality. Susanne Cook-Greuter speaks about “the undifferentiated phenomenological continuum”. As I understand this, it means that we do not differentiate so much between ourselves and the world. We actually experience ourselves as intimately connected to and constantly co-created by the immediacy of every moment. This leaves us with a more open, raw field of perception. Allowing ourselves to feel the whole spectrum of our emotional lives could be seen as a way to imitate the natural experience of someone at the unitive stage.
If you would like to use this as a tool for increasing your aliveness and ability to embrace more of experience, as well as for growing into higher stages of consciousness, here is how to do it:
Whenever you find yourself feeling something quite intense, something that you would rather avoid, make space for fully experiencing that. Be fully present with the embodied emotional texture of the experience. Stay with it until the intensity passes. This might only take a few moments and it might also take twenty minutes or more. You will probably need to stop what you are doing, maybe sit or lie down, and only do this as long as is required. Let go of mental activity whenever it appears and return to the direct, non-interpreted, embodied sensations. You can also experiment with doing this while engaged in activity, especially if the circumstances do not allow you to take a break.
Be aware that this will increase your capacity to feel more in general. This means that you will likely experience more pleasure, and you will also likely experience more of the painful, challenging emotions. Your capacity to be with these emotions, however, will also have increased, rendering them somewhat less threatening. Life will always consist of different kinds of intensity, some of which we are more inclined to welcome than others. Making space for all kinds of intensity is one of the hallmarks of the unitive stage of consciousness.
You are warmly welcome to share your experiences from experimenting with this in the comments section below.