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has perfectionism been your protection?

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

“I don’t understand why I’m so bad at this,” my client said. “Why can’t I do it?”

“Have you ever done this before?” I asked her. “Why do you think you would be an expert at something you’ve never done before?”

Perfectionism shows up in our movement practice much as it does in the rest of our life. Many of us have incredibly high expectations of ourselves: not only should we be able to do this thing, but we should be the best we can possibly be. Anything less than 100% success is an utter failure– and failure is not an option.

Yet it’s this perfectionism– this need to be the very best– that prevents us from learning, keeps us from enjoying new activities, demands that we only do things at which we already excel. We lack tolerance for the frustration that accompanies learning, and will often quit (or refuse to participate) before we can fail.

Perfectionism can be experienced as ‘the inner critic,’ who sees all that we do, judges us harshly and frequently finds us wanting. Sometimes that critic speaks with the voice of someone we know, or maybe it feels like your inner mean girl who won’t let you ever just live your damn life. Your inner critic can seem like your biggest enemy.

Yet perfectionism can be a protective adaptation. In always being “the best,” we ensured that we were admired, accepted, or even loved. This might have been something that was necessary for parental approval or peer acceptance. In this way, our perfectionism kept us safe. The idea of not being perfect– of failing– is synonymous with rejection. This can be incredibly painful.

When we see perfectionism in this light, as a habit, or a persona that has protected us from harm throughout our lives, our relationship with it may begin to shift. How wonderful that we have this part of us that has wanted to keep us safe! Instead of being angry at our inner critic, we can say, ‘Thank you for caring about me.’ And then perhaps we can begin to choose another way of working with ourselves, knowing that failure does not mean that we are unloved or unworthy. Learning to fail is a healthy and normal part of the human experience. If we never had the opportunity to learn and grow in this way, then our movement practice is the perfect place to explore how failure is not final, nor is it fatal. Not being “the best” doesn’t have to mean that we’re rejected or uncared-for. Our perfectionism, once our best protector, can step to the side and make room for a more creative and curious way of being in the world.

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