Being this moment is who we are. In being the awakened life we are, our practice effort is noticing what blinds us. These blinders are self-centered emotion--thoughts interwoven in forms, conceptions, and sensations. Practice effort may be defined as labeling thoughts and being bodily present, as noticing strategies and experiencing...If we are unclear, we may think practice is about making things better, about changing and improving. Though improvements may occur, they are not the aim of the practice.
Because I present myself as a recovering perfectionist, I have had the honor and challenge of working with several clients who also identify with this label. For me, the difficulty of this collaboration resides in an intimate understanding of how fearing failure can create impenetrable fortresses, within and beyond the therapeutic setting. Needless to say, working with perfectionists as a perfectionist means clients frequently hold up an obvious mirror to my face. I do my best to meet what reflects back at me. Admittedly, I sometimes run away until I have calmed my fears or can only be with the reflection for a few moments at a time before my own carefully crafted walls start creeping up, around, and over me, doing their best to safeguard my soft underbelly. The moments of staying with that reflection, without doing anything with or to it, have taught me the following about the blinders of perfectionism:
When we repeatedly and consistently pummel ourselves for our imperfections, the hardest part of our humanity often surfaces in an effort to protect us. Although we are hurting, those with whom we are in relationship may only see a severe, glaring mask and so withdraw from us or react with their own venom to this perceived enmity. In the moment we most crave connection, we inadvertently create barriers to it. That is what defense mechanisms do; they produce the very phenomenon against which we are trying to defend. Unfortunately, we miss the chance to connect when we harden since bonding in an authentic way requires that we take the armor off and show ourselves to the world, vulnerabilities and all. As Ash Beckham said in her TEDxBoulder talk, "If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed, too."
How do we open and soften to others in the face of the failure specter? My fellow perfectionists, I write with the utmost sincerity when I say that acknowledging our own suffering begins the pathway to healing. We cannot let down the barricades to others until we open to our own experience with curiosity, friendliness, and tenderness. Said differently, we start the recovery process by saying to ourselves, "I'm sorry"--not to apologize but to show care and concern toward the pain within. We begin saying yes to our experience and the life that is here by forgiving it.*
If these words spur all sorts of judgments toward me or yourself, I ask that you foster curiosity about that inner critic. In my experience, that judge is our best and strongest builder of the blockade that is attempting to protect us but is actually keeping us separate, from others and ourselves. She emerged to help us survive at an earlier point in time. Perhaps she showed up when we could not meet parental expectations as children, no matter how hard we tried. Or maybe she appeared when a primary caregiver told us s/he loved us no matter what but modeled a highly conditional self-love (i.e. was a perfectionist him or herself). Beyond the family, perhaps we went to a highly competitive school or spent a lot if time in social institutions where we repeatedly received the message that any performance below some arbitrary ideal represented a failure:
My point is that although the critic means well, she's not helping us a lot of the time. So we can decide to let her go. But that action is easier said than done. Usually, she's a master of wall-building--after all, she's been at it for a long time--so we need to be very intentional and disciplined about cultivating and then employing another, gentler voice. A question I find useful in the service of letting the inner judge go is, What would I have to face/feel/experience if I suspended my judgment? Generally, when I contemplate setting down the shield of self-judgment, I find what we therapist types call "primary emotions"--the softer, more vulnerable feelings of fear and sadness. If we allow ourselves to investigate these feelings with friendliness, we may generate enough heart space to begin offering ourselves forgiveness. We may even (dare I say it!) want to replace the incessant criticism with blessings of lovingkindness: May I be happy, be safe, be healthy, live with ease.
In addition to offering forgiveness to myself, I find that unlearning dichotomous, value-laden ways of thinking (right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure) opens doors to more wholehearted ways of approaching this life, which is so much more dynamic and complex than rigid black-and-white thinking allows. As I've written previously, this truth has been so important to my own healing that I tattooed a reminder on my body: "Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."
But with what do we replace these binary frameworks? Enter Sharon Salzberg's wisdom, which I recommend reading again and again and again:
the immediate result of an action, and how others respond to it, is only a small part of its value. There are two other significant aspects: the intention giving rise to the an action and the skillfulness with which we perform it. The intention is our basic motivation, or the inner urge that sparks the action. The skillfulness with which we act involves carrying out the intention with sensitivity to and awareness of what might be appropriate in any given situation. While the skillfulness of an action has a great deal to do with the result, it is the intention behind an action that is critically important. We can't control the response to an action. We can do our best to act skillfully, but it is at the level of intention where we make a crucial choice. An action can be motivated by love--or by hatred and revenge. Self-interest can be the source of what we do--or generosity can be. If our intention is wholesome, we can have faith in the workings of interconnectedness to continuously unfold our action, no matter how small or big, in positive ways.
For perfectionists, the "inner urge" driving much action is external approval and/or the achievement of some ideal. But as Salzberg pointed out, we leave a whole lot of our well-being to forces beyond our control when we focus our attention on others' responses and immediate results. What might happen to our actions if we made our intention to forgive ourselves for our imperfections, to offer kindness to ourselves rather than judgment? You will need to try it to believe it, but I know from my own experience that I have oodles more love and compassion to offer outwardly when I can muster friendliness toward myself. I also have more freedom. Moreover, and to circle back to the quote opening this post, I often see the present moment with more clarity when I am forgiving of myself and so remove the blinder of self-judgment. In other words, I tend to act more skillfully from this clear-seeing place that recognizes the "matrix of conditions" influencing this moment.** But that "improved" skillfulness and whatever results it engenders were not the intention. Self-improvement was not the goal. Forgiveness and lovingkindness were.
Once again, we arrive at a question that each of us must answer for ourselves: What stands between me and stripping away "the entangling, unhealthy ways of relating to [myself] with dislike and diminishment"?*** I imagine the answer to this question involves at least some pain that has thus far been covered over. In light of the fact that I permanently placed Rumi's words on my arm, you likely will not be surprised that I am going to close with his words, too:
Don't turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you.
* As usual, Tara Brach heavily influenced this post. For this one, I particularly drew on her retreat talk, "The Heartspace that is Our True Home."
** Here, I again was borrowing from Sharon Salzberg's Faith.
*** More Sharon Salzberg!