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  • elzbieta bilicka

Stress, Trick No. 3

Today, I'm going to take up a very difficult subject of a thinking pattern which is hugely responsible for all kinds of stress. We learn it at the young age - 'acquire' is probably a more appropriate word, since we never fully realise what is going on as children. And frankly speaking, many of us don't get much more aware as adults.

The thinking pattern I'm talking about is called 'perfectionism'. As is the case with most things in life, the kind of impact this matter has on us depends on our approach. For instance, what's wrong about having an ambition to achieve the highest quality in whatever we're doing? Or why should it be damaging to be constantly developing and elevating our competence? These are examples of a good kind of perfectionism connected with a high self-esteem. Cooperating with it makes us grow and helps achieve great goals. Perfectionism, though, has also another, entirely contradictory face. Instead of a development supporting system it can show up in a form of a suffocating net which sabotages all our actions. Its most damaging version is always accompanied by three emotions that suck the joy out of life in the most efficient way: fear, guilt and shame. Simply put - it makes us deeply unhappy.

This kind of perfectionism is in fact a master of disguise. We may think that we're obsessively trying to do things in an ideal way just for the sake of these things but it's never the case. They would never become our obsession if we weren't driven by something much more powerful, something that is the very core of human nature, if we like it or not. This thing is a need of love and acceptance.

Most of thinking patterns that we use throughout our lives develop when we are children. For many of us the feeling of being truly accepted and loved by our parents, siblings, care-givers or generally people surrounding us wasn't gained in an entirely unconditioned way. This is not because those people were bad humans with wrong intentions - it is simply because we're all imperfect, hurt and developed in an unharmonious way. So are we and so were all the generations before us. Hence, there's no point in despairing and getting angry. It is a much better idea to focus on learning what wrong patterns we use to feel accepted and loved and to relearn them consciously now that we are all grown-up and pretending to be smart ;).

My experience taught me that the very first step - detecting that you are prey to an  unhealthy kind of perfectionism - is already very tricky. These few questions might be helpful. For example, do you often feel uneasy, as if something was wrong but you can't really pinpoint the reason? Does it happen to you especially after a challenging, stressful situation, doesn't matter if it's a recital at the Royal Albert Hall in front of hundreds of people, a first date or a conversation with a lady at the post office? Do you feel so uncomfortable and afraid of something vague then that you start to scan every second of the event, every note you played, every word you said, every joke you made and every expression on people's faces? This is one of the signals that you treat acceptance and, broadly speaking, love as something you can get only if you try hard and make absolutely no mistakes. Every little flaw in your performance, looks or behaviour instantly makes you feel guilty and ashamed of yourself. It causes this mysterious uneasiness and the need to find what you did wrong in order to either punish yourself or immediately improve. You may not realise it but you'll see it's true if you dare give your deepest self an honest look - it all happens because the most sensitive part of you is convinced that you don't deserve love being just as you are. 

We often get trapped, somehow tricked by our perfectionist nature. It tries to convince us that we should be feeling guilty and ashamed after a failure because in this way we have a drive to become better versions of ourselves. It makes us feel afraid that without this mechanism we would stop developing. This is completely not true, though! As a matter of fact, it's a huge and dangerous illusion.

Living under dictatorship of perfectionism resembles a constant state of war, if you like a military metaphor, or a soil depleting cultivation, if you prefer an agriculture one ;). What I mean is that it is so destructive that, first, you cannot go long-term using this strategy without causing great damage to yourself and second, there's no place for joy and peace in this system. I know that it's easy to become a hostage of your own perfectionism. Your fear that you will never earn the right to be loved and accepted or will instantly lose the bits of affection that you have the moment you make a mistake seems overwhelming. But the truth is that you are able to develop healthily, have access to your creativity and fully use your potential only when perfectionism stops ruling your world. How to achieve that? Those of you who struggle with perfectionism know how impossible this task seems. But there is a way to handle it! I've tested it and it's the only strategy that has proved effective to me so far.  

I like to work with tricks, somehow long and vague methods of self-analysis with no action in practice only make me frustrated. Maybe I'm too much of a product of the last two centuries ;). Anyways, the trick against perfectionism which I figured for myself appears in my head under the name 'courage'. And it really demands a lot of it, especially at the beginning, but the good thing is that is gets easier very quickly. The point of a whole trick is to consciously practice being imperfect. Sounds crazy? Only at first. Start with small things and see yourself how it works.

For example, an option for girls: if your looks are a sensitive area for your perfectionist nature, try to go out with no make up or maybe even, a hardcore version, wearing sweatpants (!;D) once a week when you shop for groceries. Believe me, you'll discover at least two surprising things! First, most people don't really pay attention and won't notice you at all. Second, those who will notice you won't treat you even half as critically as you imagine. You might even get a few very fond glances from one or two guys - take it all in and enjoy! That's your first prove for being absolutely worthy attention, acceptance and even affection from people when you're being a 100% imperfect version of yourself!

Let me give you another option how you can practice courage of being imperfect. Let's imagine you're in a foreign country and don't speak the language too well. You are very tired after sightseeing for hours and you'd give up everything for a cup of coffee. Suddenly, you spot a nice cafe at the corner. It smells insane, you can see glasses of great espresso through the window...and yet, you're reluctant to go inside. More, you're absolutely petrified with a picture of yourself mixing up all the words, speaking with a dreadful accent and, of course, making everyone laugh at you mercilessly. Fear, guilt and shame instantly go crazy in your mind and you feel totally miserable. This is the perfect time for your exercise! All you need is courage (tough part, I know...) but you can do it like a bungee jumper - close your eyes, take a deep breath and just take the first step. Yes, that's all true that you're going to be imperfect - more, you'll most likely be totally ridiculous. That's the whole point! First, you'll see that you survived, second, you'll get the coffee you wanted and three, if you manage to cover all your mistakes with a charming smile you'll most probably get it back from a waiter with a bonus of a  few friendly words.

There are as many ways to practice this trick as your imagination can think of. The crucial thing is to repeat it regularly for a long time. What we want here is to create new patterns of emotional reactions to what we perceive as a failure in our brains. We learn by experience, our minds connect all occurrences, especially those ones that appear repeatedly in our lives, with a simplified 'good or bad' reaction. This is the way our brains developed to make us survive among billions of signals that reach us every day. To a big extent, we are like CDs that got recorded at the very beginning of our lives. Some recordings work really well but other ones keep freezing, the sound quality is bad and there's a constant background noise. You can't throw this CD away, sadly. You're stuck with it until the end of your life but it is entirely up to you if you keep playing it or not! Your brain, though, needs some paths of automatic reactions to function well. So what can you do? The only reasonable option is to record a new CD in your mind, this time choosing all your reactions consciously and deliberately.

Unhealthy perfectionism is a difficult issue. Handling it usually turns out to be very challenging and time consuming. The trick I described, though, is really simple and helpful. The first step is the hardest one - finding courage to break the habit and act against your deepest fears. Later, it demands a long-lasting commitment and regular practice. But if you manage to get through this all, it will pay off with one of the greatest rewards - a feeling of freedom.