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Perfectionism: A Pitfall to Healing

By Jenny Peterson

(For an audio version of this blog, listen to episode #43 of my podcast)


Want to know a popular subconscious pattern that gets in the way of a person's healing? It's perfection.


Perfectionism shows up most obviously in our mind and with the actions we take. But, it can certainly show up in the body and emotions as well. When doing our own healing or personal development work, perfectionism can be a big block to reaching our goals.


It's a subconscious pattern that has roots that go way back. Today, I talk about the root causes to perfection, why it negatively affects your body and healing, and the ways you can let go of this pattern so you can reach your healing goals.


You may not have a meticulously organized junk drawer or a closet full of clothes organized by color or sleeve length, but perfectionist traits may still be affecting your life— and even your healing.


If I had to estimate how many of our students are perfectionists when they join MBR, I would say around 70%. It's very common for those with chronic health conditions to have this subconscious pattern.


Not everyone that is a perfectionist knows that they are one, so here are some signs:

  1. You think in all-or-nothing terms. Something is either right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or a disaster.

  2. You think, and then act, in extremes. Like, "I had one cookie and screwed up my diet ... I might as well eat them all.”

  3. You often say “I should have” or “I should be doing”

  4. You can’t trust others to do a task correctly, so you rarely delegate. Others may see you as a micro-manager or control freak, but you see your actions as just wanting to get the job done right.

  5. You have demanding standards for yourself and others. You believe in always giving your best and you expect others to do the same. And you are scared to death of looking like a failure.

  6. You have trouble completing a project because you think there is always something more you can do to make it better.

  7. Your self-confidence depends on what you accomplish and how others react to you. You strive for excellence and need validation from others to feel good about your accomplishments.

  8. You tend to fixate on something you messed up. You may have done something right, but still focus instead on the one mistake you made.

  9. You procrastinate or avoid situations where you think you might not excel. It may seem counterintuitive, but many people who procrastinate or avoid doing something are actually perfectionists: They're afraid they will fail. Their rationale is, “I might not be able to do it perfectly, so why bother at all?”procrastinate, or avoid situations where you think you might not excel. It may seem counterintuitive, but many people who procrastinate or avoid doing something are actually perfectionists: They're afraid they will fail. Their rationale is, “I might not be able to do it perfectly, so why bother at all?”

How many of these can you relate to?


Let's take it a little deeper and look at where perfectionism is playing out in your healing.

  • Thinking that a protocol to help you heal is either good or bad. Rather than seeing some good from it, you see all bad maybe because of one thing.

  • The need to do whatever protocol you are doing perfectly and if you don’t, you beat yourself up about it.

  • You have a hard time investing in someone to help you because you think you can do it better on your own.

  • You think, and then act, in extremes. I started my day off bad; I might as well keep it going.

  • You want help, but fear that you won’t do it right so you hesitate to commit to a protocol.

  • You make a full time job out of healing by spending every waking hour of your day trying to “fix” yourself or heal. It's all or nothing.

  • You tend to get mad at yourself for doing something in the past to try and heal that ended up not working out.

  • You “should” on yourself all the time. You read all these things that you “should” be doing and beat yourself up because you're not doing them. Or you think you're not doing them “correctly”.

  • You compare yourself to others that are healing or those that have, thinking that you will never get it right.

  • You might avoid doing trauma work or memory work because there is a part of you that will have to deal with the “mistakes” you made.

  • You’re focused on results and get depressed when they aren’t happening.

Perfectionism can also be seen outside yourself by trying to always have a perfectly clean house, having a perfect diet, making sure your appearance is perfect and so on.


WHERE IT COMES FROM

Perfectionism is a protection mechanism we adopt to avoid uncomfortable feelings.


In essence a subconscious survival pattern.


What's driving it is the belief that if we appear to do everything well we can “avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame”. We use perfectionism as a shield in areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame.


At the root of it, is a fear that we aren’t good enough and can’t let certain parts of ourselves be seen.


We can identify these areas by asking ourselves where we most fear failure.


Somewhere along the way, we picked up the notion that failure or imperfection in certain areas means we are unworthy of love and lack value as people. This concept is reinforced throughout our lives, by messages we pick up from those close to us, cultural norms, and our own self-talk.


As we grow up, our beliefs about ourselves and the world are shaped by our experiences and the beliefs of those around us. Our beliefs can be either conscious or subconscious.


Many perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance, such as grades, manners, appearance, obedience, or pleasing others. Along the way, they formed the belief that their self-worth is dependent on meeting certain standards.


Society, school, our parents, the media, etc. does a damn good job forcing perfection in our face. Not meeting these standards can lead to strong feelings of shame, so the subconscious becomes hardwired to avoid feeling this again. It's all about survival.


A common example is around productivity. If you were praised for working hard during childhood and shamed for not doing so, your self-worth will be strongly attached to feeling productive.


As an adult, you might seek to avoid feeling lazy and unproductive, e.g. constantly keeping busy and feeling guilty if you do switch off or rest. This is very common with students we work with. We have to unwire those old patterns of constantly feeling like they should be doing something and be ok with doing less or sometimes nothing.

Between the age of 0-12 years old is the place we get the greater part of our subconscious programming. It can come from our parents, grandparents, teachers, etc. It can start from something as simple as coming home with an art picture and having mom say something like “wow thats almost as good as your sisters picture that she drew”. Or "you got a B, what the heck is wrong with you?"


To a child's brain this feels like rejection and shame. These feelings are a threat to our survival because it makes our brain think that we are going to be kicked out of our “pack” and our brain will do anything to avoid feeling them again.


So, our amazing minds learn to adapt for survival. It says, let's be as perfect as we can to avoid feeling that again. If a child feels neglected, less worthy than others, or inferior he will develop perfectionism to differentiate himself from people and to elevate his self worth.

This is why it's so important to realize that you don’t need to have had “big trauma” like physical abuse, to do this work. Anything that feels like a threat to survival, from the primal brain's perspective, like getting kicked out of the pack, is trauma.

When we suffer from trauma, our subconscious mind does whatever it can to avoid feeling that feeling again and it tends to continue influencing us without us even realizing it. Then we take part in these practices as adults out of habit and not really know the reason. It's all because of those survival patterns that were established as a child.


Even though the subconscious mind develops perfectionism to help the person maintain psychological balance, these efforts yield no result and the person is held back by his perfectionism instead of reaping any benefits out of it.

IT COMES DOWN TO CONTROL

When we get wrapped up in tendencies toward perfectionism, we are buying into the story that displaying mastery means we are worthy of love, acceptance, and recognition.


How many times have you said some variation of the following to yourself:

  • “If I nail my supplement routine, my skin will be clear and I won’t feel so grossed out when my partner touches me.”

  • “When I can get the right amount of sleep, I’ll go back to being the parent I know my kids deserve.”

  • “I’m going to get to the gym every day this week and crush my workouts—then I’ll feel good enough to attend the company party on Friday.”

We tell ourselves that by controlling various aspects of our lives to a high degree, we’ll get the outcome that we’re looking for and be worthy of love.


It's the Have > Do > Be approach: so often, we focus on what we want to have in our lives and what we need to do to get there, thinking that we will be lovable, happy, healthy, worthy, content, joyful, etc. once we arrive.


When we flip the model on its head and approach it from a Be > Do > Have framework, we get to START with how we want to be in our lives, recognizing our power in accessing these ways of being from within. If we uncover our inner state of being lovable, happy, healthy, worthy, content, and joyful, then what we do and the results we have flow from there.


I see people spend a lot of time on the hamster wheel chasing the Have > Do > Be (like a perfectionist junky looking for her next dopamine hit from false sense of control and certainty) and the results are clear: they keep themselves on alert, always anxious and looking out for the next opportunity for failure, thus activating stress hormones and exacerbating their symptoms.


This is the cycle of the perfection addict.


And, in hindsight, it is clear how years of stress and anxiety in attempt to outplay failure and prove worthiness end with an overactive nervous system.

SYMPTOMS CONNECTED TO THIS PATTERN

When we have this core belief about ourselves, that we have to be perfect to be loved, accepted, etc. then it will shape how we perceive everything.

It will bleed into all areas of our life.

This belief of 'I need to be perfect' and fear of failing will drive other behavioral patterns and perceptions, which could possibly manifest into symptoms.


Lets take a look at some symptoms that this could be connected to:

  • Anxiety - this is all about fear of the future and feeling powerless. So if you fear failing something that you do, then that is going to cause anxiety. Your mind is already in the future and feeling powerless to control it.

  • Structural Issues- Our bones, tissues and lymphatic system are all back to self devaluation. So, if we don’t feel good enough about ourselves, our bodies will adapt in these areas to survive that threat of not being strong enough.

  • Thyroid Issues- Remember how I mentioned before about productivity and its connection to perfection? How as children some are programmed to feel like rest is a bad thing, that you must always be doing something? When we keep these lists to do and never feel like we can catch up, it will reflect in the metabolizer system of our bodies, the thyroid. When our mind is feeling like we are behind, we can't catch up, our thyroid naturally slows things down for survival.

These are just some examples of how this perfection pattern can play out in our bodies.

Again it's all based on perception. Old subconscious patterns are always playing a role in how we respond to life. Chronic symptoms are connected to a situation that caused some type of shock to us. But how we respond to that shock is going to be based on these programs.

NEGATIVE EFFECTS

Perfectionism prevents us from expressing our true self, taking the action we really want to and reaching our full potential.


It keeps us playing small because we don’t want to experience anything that could result in failing, being judged, letting ourselves down, shining too brightly or not being liked, all of which could risk experiencing shame. It also stops us from connecting to others because the version of ourselves that we present to the world isn’t always who we really are. It can often lead to feeling the very emotions we are trying to avoid.


All people are born confident and then they acquire certain bad traits that steals their self confidence over time. Perfectionism is one of these traits as it keeps lowering self-confidence gradually as long as it exists.


Perfectionism holds us back from engaging in new challenges and experiences in case we get it wrong. The antidote to this is developing a growth mindset. A growth mindset is when we believe our skills can be improved through effort, so we welcome challenges, failure, and mistakes as opportunities to grow.


We often think of perfectionists as being highly organized, on it and thorough. But in reality, perfectionism is less about striving to do everything perfectly and more about avoiding doing things imperfectly. This can mean avoiding tasks and situations entirely or withholding effort when we’re not certain we will do well.


I see this a lot in secondary gain work. When I dig into what is really keeping a student from healing, fear of failure is one of the biggest things I see come up. It's a reason for staying sick.


Because if you get well, your subconscious knows that it will have to do this hard thing. That hard thing actually feels more scary than staying sick.


Some common secondary gains that I see around perfectionism and the fear of failing are:

  • Getting better and having to go back to working a job that they fear not doing a good enough job at.

  • A fear of taking on more responsibilities because they fear not being capable of doing them.

  • A fear of doing what they actually want with their life and having their parents see that choice as a failure.

  • A fear of getting well and having to handle taking care of the home while working and possibly not being able to keep up with keeping their house looking perfect.

  • A fear of getting well, pursuing their dreams, like a business and possibly failing at reaching that dream.

As you can see, perfectionism keeps you stuck. It forces you to play small in your life. It stops you from taking risks. All these play a role in your healing. Because you will need to take risks and be willing to fail in order to heal.

PERFECTION VS EXCELLENCE

I want to make a distinction here between perfectionism (striving for impossibly high standards 100% of the time) and doing things with excellence.


To me, the difference really shows in how we deal with failure.


When we are doing things with excellence, we consistently work to improve, seek feedback, and forgive ourselves when we don’t measure up.


When we are in perfectionist mode, if things don’t go our way, we beat ourselves up, spiral into guilt, and see our performance as proof that we have no worth as a person.


Excellence is being able to walk away saying I did my best and easily move forward.


LETTING GO OF THE PATTERN

Regardless of how long you’ve had this perfection pattern, you can let it go.


It's not going to be an overnight thing. It's going to take small baby steps. Remember you can’t and shouldn’t try eating an elephant all in one bite.

  • Build Awareness. Have the awareness of how you might engage in perfectionism, especially around your healing. The questions that I asked at the beginning will help you see where this is showing up.

Once you have awareness then…

  • Find Where It Started. I do this because if we understand where it started, we can see that it is due to our programming rather than it being something that is “wrong” with us. Programming is fixable. Become aware of your beliefs/programming driving this behavior. Identify where some of these programs came from so you can then shift these traumas at the subconscious level which will shift your programming and consequently your behavior. Realizing that this belief and programming came from how you perceived situations as a child. It also most likely came from your parents, which often have perfection patterns themselves and are passed on.


  • Change your mindset and behavior. Once you can identify where this started, you can start changing your mindset and behavior. Realize that you don’t need to prove your worth to anybody. You’re an adult now, and I give you permission to say “Fuck it”, I don’t need to do this anymore. I don’t need to prove myself to people to be loved or accepted, I can give that to myself. You do your best and that is enough. It is unbelievable how many adults are overachieving, still trying to do everything perfectly to get their parents approval and love. It's time to cut the cord. By letting go of the need for others to validate us, we feel more intimately connected to ourselves.


  • Shift the meaning. Shift the meaning of failure. Understand that this is not a perfect world and that success is not by any means equivalent to perfection. In fact, success is due to failure. You can’t improve or grow without it.


  • Focus on improving. When the goal is to improve, we lessen the fear of not getting it perfect or right. Allow yourself to be a beginner and to be a work in progress. Like you did when you first learned how to ride a bike. When you take steps forward, you can find out what works and doesn’t work for you as you go. Sometimes we never fully know what is right for us until we’ve done the things that weren’t. If we only praise ourselves for positive outcomes, we’re more likely to stay in our comfort zone where we know we get things right. Expect things to be messy and imperfect as you move forward toward your goals.


  • Replace your inner critic with compassion. Perfectionists in particular can be very critical of their behavior and choices. Instead of motivating us, self-criticism makes us less confident about taking action. If this resonates, try to notice how you talk to yourself. When you become aware of your thoughts, you can make a conscious choice to replace a critical thought with a more compassionate one. Think about what you would say to your younger self or a loved one and speak to yourself in the same way. When you catch yourself saying, “I should’ve done better.” replace it with “I did my best.”

As soon as you start combating your perfection pattern, your productivity will go up, your self confidence will take a boost and your life will become better. You will start taking steps to move you forward in your healing with excitement rather than fear.



There is a huge opportunity within your chronic symptoms to work through your subconscious patterns of perfectionism—your body is actually giving you a message that this needs to change.


This old survival pattern is no longer helping you, it's hindering you.


When we surrender our notion of control and recenter our focus on ways of being, we get to set down the stress of always aiming for mastery and perfection. The conflict within our mind subsides, and we get to settle into our bodies without demanding they be different.


We get to hang up the black-and-white, perfection-or-failure mindset that so often runs us and trust the body to let us know what it needs.


When we give ourselves and our bodies permission to be imperfect and know deep down that we are enough, being sloppy or messy in some areas of life can be a huge relief. That kind of authenticity is a gift to everyone around you, because it gives them permission to be imperfect, too.


When our safety mechanism gets triggered while trying to do our own healing and personal development work, trying to be perfect can cause more pain than it is actually helping us.


When we chase this urge to get it right, we are kept from exploring teachings that would benefit our own internal experiences and our own beautifully unique bodies, minds, and souls.

Perfectionism deserves compassion, for it is driven by an intense fear of loss, fear of not being good enough, and controls the individual in painful ways.


When we have the courage to release ourselves from it, we unlock the potential within.

 

If you're ready to identify and resolve the unconscious patterns connected to your symptoms so you can finally heal for good, fill out an MBR application to see if you're a good fit for MBR.


You can also Download my free healing guide, “Why Can’t I Heal” where you will learn the 5 reasons that you haven't healed despite everything you've tried. These are the missing pieces to your healing and the key to resolving your symptoms for good.


Jenny Peterson is the founder and CEO of Mind Body Rewire (MBR). She teaches those with chronic symptoms how to stop fearing their body, identify the root cause to their symptoms and how to be their own healer. Learn more about MBR here.