It’s 4:30 in the morning and Jane and I have returned to her loft after a debaucherous Halloween costume party. We are both extremely exhausted, but not at all sleepy. Sipping tea at the kitchen table, lit only by the lights of Denver’s high-rises, we are afforded a rare and intimate opportunity of time and space in which to open real conversation. Jane opens by speaking about her family, and the upcoming holidays. She shares with me that her parents have always pressured her and her siblings to be perfect, to achieve hugely and to never, ever trip up. Tears start to well in her eyes and then slide down her cheeks as Jane feels into the restriction this has created in her life. I listen. I hold space. I remind Jane that she is incredible and amazing without needing to prove herself or achieve anything. Eventually, too, I push Jane forward with some tough love, and help her see that this perfectionism which was originally taught to her by her parents is now ultimately coming from herself. She nods her head, sighs and shudders, and the tears dry up. We both feel a strange combination of surrender and empowerment. Somehow the sharpness of the bindings of perfectionism have already softened.
I relay this scene from the wee hours of this past Sunday morning for two reasons. Firstly, I was so touched and honored to witness the raw and real expression of pain that arises from the disease of perfectionism. I know it within myself, but rarely see it expressed by another with so much vulnerability and trust. Secondly, I share this experience because I felt that I was authentically able to take the seat of teacher/guru that was called forth in the moment. Again, an honor.
Although I didn’t delve into my own journey while counseling Jane, I am sure that one of the reasons that I was able to shed light on the issue of perfectionism is that I have struggled with my own strain of the disease. My perfectionism was also learned from my family, my mother in particular. Unlike Jane’s parents, my family never pressured my brother nor I to achieve huge success, make money and hold it all together flawlessly. Instead, my mom’s version of perfectionism revolved around always being a good and ethical person, often at the cost of one’s own desires, emotions and self-respect. Mom unwittingly taught me to hold myself to such high moral standards, to be nice and gracious and easy to everyone, to always do the “right” thing. Granted, I have purposely rebelled against this model more than a few times, but in general it has been deeply instilled in me.
Recently both owners of a yoga studio I teach for attended my class in order to evaluate me. They genuinely seemed to enjoy the class, and offered some gentle feedback afterwards. I knew their intent was to help me grow as a teacher, and these evaluations were routine for all staff. Still, I left our meeting shaking. Even the tiny bit of criticism I received had knocked me off my platform of “being good and doing well.” This is nothing new for me. Locked in the straightjacket of my mom’s (and her mom’s and her mom’s) particular type of perfectionism, I am seriously devastated when I have even slightly disappointed someone I care about or respect. I feel that all my good and moral intentions have been overlooked or misinterpreted. I spin out and create the story of “not good enough” and “will never be good enough.” Adding insult to injury, these patterns then help reinforce another deep-seeded belief that I am just a misunderstood and unappreciated victim. Furthermore, these knee-jerk reactions then contribute to my story of being broken. These are also the stories that shy me away from confrontation or discomfort of any sort with anyone, even when it would be healthy and help me erect appropriate boundaries.
This recent evaluation experience was like a guru to me in that it helped shine light on my symptoms of the perfectionism disease. Now that I’ve exposed my own habits and tendencies, I am more able to help others, like Jane, to do the same. The phrase “it takes one to know one” is usually used as a negative slight, but it could also be turned inside-out and applied to the amount of self-knowledge and inquiry that is necessary for a teacher to truly be able to guide a student. The teacher/guru must have a continuous practice of looking deeply and clearly into themselves, and seeing their own divinity in the midst of the messiness, in order to do the same for others.
It was from this place of my own first-hand knowing that I was able to hold space for Jane’s grief and pain at the kitchen table. Remembering that it is not a teacher’s job to fix anything, I encouraged a regenerative engagement with the feelings and realizations that arose. And then just by shining the light and engaging with the messiness, it softened and subsided naturally. By the time Jane crawled into her bed and I crashed on the couch, we were both able to rest in the knowledge that we are all whole, holy, divine and “perfect” just as we are.