Deconstructing my perfectionism: the triggers, the beliefs, the conditioning, and all the elements that keep me locked in a hollow shell of a perfectionist pattern.
I broke my streak.
After landing 31 front tucks on my feet over a span of 5 weeks, I entered one from an awkward bounce and couldn’t stick the landing. I landed on my ass. It was safe, but it stung.
Even after discussing with my coach that this is a natural part of testing my boundaries, I was still upset about it.
I tried to shift my focus to the fact that I landed 12 of 13 on my feet. And that 13 is a lot for one set. Front tucks require immense focus for me. They are physically and mentally exhausting. After the one I missed, I got back up and did more. That must count for something, right?
My coach urged me to take the win.
But my focus remained on the one misstep.
I realized I was clinging to perfection.
Like in the early days of my front tucks, when I knew in the air when I would stick the landing but couldn’t adjust to affect the outcome, I could see myself in my perfectionism pattern, but I couldn’t get out of it.
Even though I knew, as my coach said, that I come to trampoline practice to learn, not to be perfect. I always call it my safe space to fail, but it wasn’t a failure. I am learning.
I can see the pattern and how I got into it. I know exactly what’s going on.
The trigger this time, as almost always, was a feeling of betrayal of myself.
I opened up. I spoke my truth in a relationship. I embraced my vulnerability and shared what I was feeling. I offered my heart and it was left hanging.
There’s nothing worse than no response.
The silence is deafening.
Trust me, I’ve got all the reframes and perspectives on this. I see “the stories I am making up.” I see my expectations. That moment was just the trigger. This isn’t about that as much as it’s about me and what’s going on within me.
The trigger produces the range of emotions. Sadness. Pain. Loneliness. Anger. First at the person who dropped my heart on the floor. Then at myself for offering my heart.
I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have said anything. It was too much. I went too far.
All of this is happening just as I’m getting ready to allow myself to be seen in my full expression of myself as I take my work to a bigger stage.
I feel lonely, alone, and rejected. I feel unsupported, undesired, unloved. I feel unsafe to be myself and to share what I’m feeling.
It all combines into one big ball of mess. It is wreaking havoc on my body. My hip flexors tighten as the fight-or-flight response kicks in. My shoulders are hurting. My body is closing up around my heart to protect it. I’m going back into hibernation mode just as I was starting to emerge.
I don’t just feel unseen and unheard, I feel unseeable and unhearable.
I feel unlovable.
I compensate by trying to be perfect.
Perfection is how I cope with feeling not good enough. Or feeling like I’m “too much.”
This is the underlying belief: That if someone doesn’t love me, it’s because of something I did.
I was too much. I was too clingy, too needy, too vulnerable, too honest, too withdrawn, too bossy, too intense, too emotional.
Or I was not enough. Not feminine enough. Not smart enough. Not sexy enough. Not motivated enough. Not productive enough. Not flexible enough. Not funny enough.
So I set out to prove my worth through other means, to show that whatever my failings elsewhere, I have it together here.
Who am I trying to prove this to? The person who left my heart hanging, who failed to pick it up? No.
I’m trying to prove it to myself.
If I’m perfect, then if people don’t love me at least it’s not my fault.
Where Did This Belief Come From?
I was not born with the belief that it’s my fault if people don’t love me.How did I come to believe this?
How does anyone come to believe anything?
I learned it. As a child, I learned it from the criticisms and comments I received from the people who professed to love me, who, in the guise of “my best interest” told me things I needed to change to attract a partner or be successful or accomplish other goals. Teachers. Parents. Parents.
I learned it later in life from a culture that assumes if you reach a certain age and are single there must be something wrong with you.
I learned it from parents who continue to imply or question outright what I’m doing wrong to still be single.
A Recent Example
Just last month, my mother told me about a woman she met who got married in her late 40s. The woman told my mom she went to see a therapist to find out “what she was doing wrong” in relationships. She offered to speak with me.
My mother, who told me this story as a way to prove how she was “saving” me from talking to this woman. Responded to this woman by saying,
My daughter wouldn’t be open to talking to you.
Notice she didn’t say, “there’s nothing wrong with my daughter.”
If the woman wanted to tell me how she lost 300 pounds, I assure you my mother would say “my daughter doesn’t need to lose weight.” But this? This, my mother believes. She believes there is something wrong with me.
And so I believe it. Beliefs are learned and inherited.
Do you think this is the first time this pattern has shown up?
This pattern has been engraved and retrenched for decades.
The grooves are well-worn.
The triggers may vary, but the belief that there is something wrong with me — that I’m not enough, that I’m too much — is a constant presence in the back of my mind. And when it leaps to the forefront, the perfectionist takes over.
What Does Perfect Mean?
If I’m perfect, I don’t have to be vulnerable.
If I’m perfect, I am worthy of love. Not just from others, but from myself.
If I am perfect, it’s not my fault if people don’t love me back.
The Drive to Achievement
Perfection, of course, is an impossible standard because it doesn’t exist.
So in the absence of true perfection, I strive for big achievements. I spent years chasing straight-As in school on my way to Ivy League degrees. Then I chased status as an attorney at a top–10 law firm. When that wore thin, I started a business in real estate, where I won Rookie of the Year.
More recently, I focused on behavior change, amassing streaks in the “good” daily “habits” that portend success: daily workouts, journaling, meditation, writing, publishing.
The Illusion of Meaning
Set big goals, they say.
Big goals give life meaning.
Nobody can take away your accomplishments.
Really? The high of an achievement lasts for a couple of days, then it’s always “now what?”
And what does that get me?
It leaves me hiding behind accomplishments, instead of taking risks to grow. It leaves me hiding behind a keyboard, instead of putting myself out to the world. It leaves me trying to fill myself with the illusion of productivity to mask the emptiness I feel because I try to be perfect
Perfect is a poison that creates an emptiness in the soul.
I try to fill that hole with big achievements — the streaks, the milestones, the big accomplishments — but they don’t work.
What Creates Meaning
The moments of meaning in my life have never come from accomplishing a big goal or hitting some big milestone.
The pursuit of these big accomplishments is just another form of escape. It may have better optics than other escape mechanisms — drugs, alcohol, food, television, social media, news, busy, work, fitness — but it just masks the emptiness. It doesn’t fill the hole.
There is only one way to fill the hole.
I have to learn to love myself. Unconditionally.
Not because I reached the unattainable standard of perfection, not because I hit a milestone on some streak, not because I write and publish every day, and not because somebody loves me back.
I must believe I am worthy of love — of my own love — just as I am.
How can I expect someone else to love me if I can’t love myself?
There is no perfect. There’s just being me.
And that needs to be enough.