Perhaps you have had this experience. You are faced with a situation or event that you are unable to control. You can’t “fix the problem” as you see it. You feel that there is no solution—whether or not there really is a solution. So suddenly you are hit with an overpowering collection of emotions. Because you are unable to change the circumstances, you feel huge discomfort. Then you feel even worse because you cannot control the emotions that are coursing through your body. You might not even be able to name the emotions that are swirling in your body but you acknowledge that you are suffering.
I certainly have had my fair share of these moments. And most people have experienced something like this for various reasons. If you are a perfectionist like me, it is common to experience emotional turmoil when things don’t go your way. Not feeling in control of a situation and not being able to manage your emotions is particularly difficult for a perfectionist.
I am a firm believer that perfectionism isn’t a great thing. (As distinguished from Optimalism where one strives for the best and also acknowledges that life has constraints and there will always be trade-offs.) Perfectionism holds us back from trying things that, though they may be messy, can lead to wonderful results. Perfectionism keeps us doing things in a way that won’t create waves and keeps us in our comfort zone. Fear of failure and fear of success are the two factors that keep perfectionists stuck. This is the reality of being a perfectionist.
Yet perfectionism is not just about taking some action or not taking some action because of fear of failure or fear of success or fear of what others will think or say. A nasty layer of perfectionism is how we deal with emotion. Or as is more often the case, how we don’t deal with emotion. Holding emotion in is a problem for many people, whether or not you are a perfectionist. While growing up, mostly if you are female but also for many males, you are trained to hold in emotion. Be a good girl or boy and don’t rock the boat. “Anger bad; happy good” or some similar sentiment is what we hear and internalize. When something does not go as planned, perfectionists can easily get caught in an emotional blur and feel like there is no way out of a strong emotion that they are unfamiliar with, having held it in so well most of the time.
If you try to think your way out of emotion and take control, it can take you further into the crisis. Perhaps what is out of your control is really big and terrible, or perhaps it is actually fairly inconsequential. Either way, if you cannot control the outcome of some situation, it can send you into an emotional tizzy. I recently had such an experience, so I am coaching myself as much as others. I am discovering real-time all the reasons perfectionism causes me pain and suffering and why it is crucial to lessen my perfectionism. Because I can’t change a situation, in addition to feeling painful emotions, my shoulders are so crunched they almost feel like they are up at my ears. That’s not good for my body. Self-manufactured emotional and physical stress: that’s what perfectionism gives me.
Not having control is ultimately what upsets the perfectionist, be it our own emotion or events and circumstances. And control is really something that we have little capability to do in most of life. The weather is uncontrollable. Life and death is uncontrollable. How others behave is uncontrollable. What’s a perfectionist to do?
There has got to be a better way.
And there is. Letting go—even if just a smidgen—is the path towards healing. Although you may think that you are able to think yourself out of this, a more effective means is to do something physical to let the emotion exist and then perhaps move through and eventually out of you. You will feel better; you will get to the other side even if you don’t believe that is possible while it is happening. It may take some time, but a big part of perfectionism is recognizing that emotions are OK and need to be felt. Bigger problems happen when you don’t release the emotion. In large part, I was drawn to write about this because I unconsciously knew that I would feel better if I worked through the feelings through my writing. I also went outside into my garden and I also read at some of my favorite books about perfectionism. I did a whole lot of deep breathing. All methods eased the suffering for me and can for you too. Try this if you are in a cloud of emotional turmoil.
- Stop whatever you are doing.
- Breathe in slowly and deeply into your heart.
- Move your body to shift your physical energy.
- Watch yours thoughts go by and try not to connect to them. They are just thoughts.
- Get curious about your thoughts. Don’t let them connect to you.
- Allow the emotions to be there.
- Breathe into your heart and slow down some more.
- Move your body some more.
- Ask yourself what you can appreciate.
- Connect to the joy of what you are appreciating.
- Decide you will not suffer anymore.
- Move some more to shift your energy.
This combination of allowing yourself to feel what you feel without judgment and also creating some physical motion is a great way to deal with an overwhelming emotional experience. For all you healing perfectionists, the road to recovery is to cultivate the courage to be imperfect and allow imperfect outcomes to just be. Be compassionate to yourself and others when things don’t go as you hoped, and be grateful for all of your human gifts, including emotions and imperfections. I hope that you allow yourself to explore your emotions and learn from them, rather than letting them restrict you and keep you in pain. Our humanness includes so much complexity from joy to sorrow. Leaning into all that we are given in life is ultimately all we can do and integral to living fully.