Perfectionism: My Great White Whale

For as long as I can remember I have always been a perfectionist. I have memories of me as a small child hesitating to play with my dollhouse for fear that I might break something or mess up one of my beautiful rooms that I had set up just so. As a teenager, I often would resist writing or doing anything artistic because I edited myself from the very start and it made the process seem so arduous that it was beyond overwhelming. And, as an adult and teaching professional, I still find myself bogged down in a perfectionist pattern. As a Choreographer and Yoga Instructor, I often find myself spending hours on one simple dance phrase or section of a yoga lesson. Working on it over and over again until it feels just right (well, I have to be honest, I always wonder if it could be a little better).

Why do I do it? Well, I never gave it much thought. I figured there is nothing wrong with striving for excellence in every endeavor. I mean we all want to be the best in everything we do, right? Well, that’s the way I have always justified it to myself. However, that little nagging voice in my head has been a little too vocal for even fastidious Mandie these days.

I have been dealing with anxiety all my life and and I have recently come to be believe that much of it has to do with the self-doubt and worry that I impose on myself because of my perfectionist ways. Perfectionism is an addiction for me and the constant need for flawlessness and approval from everyone is a standard that is simply too high to maintain.

Ironically, while looking for inspirational yoga stories to share with my class on Yoga Journal the other day I found an article that quite frankly rocked my world. The article was titled, “Making Peace with Perfectionism” and it was written by Sally Kempton, a California-based meditation teacher and workshop leader and the author of “The Heart of Meditation.” In the article Sally explains, “In Sanskrit, one of the words for perfection is purna, usually translated as fullness or wholeness. Indian yogic texts tell us that everything in this world arises from and is contained inside one single energy, or shakti. This energy is always full, intrinsically complete, perfect, and joyful. That is a far cry from our modern interpretation of perfection, which has become synonymous with flawless. Sally explains that “the irony is that our ideal of perfection—which arises from the ego’s need to explain and control—inevitably keeps us from the experience of perfection.” That was a real ah-hah moment for me. That little nagging voice was actually keeping me from achieving any authentic form of perfection.

One of the most compelling parts of the article was a checklist that she included to see if you are a perfectionist in your yoga practice. I had too many yeses to ignore the fact the perfectionism was even holding me back in my beloved yoga practice. A practice that I had turned to to help me turn down that voice in my head and ease my anxiety. My God, was there no end to my perfectionism. I was really disheartened to discover that I was even editing myself in Yoga where the message is to honor and love yourself. I thought I knew that, but I am discovering that I never fully internalized what that meant. As Sally Kempton writes, “Many of us live with that nagging inner critic all our lives without ever realizing that it is a foreign installation and not the voice of Truth.”

The good news is that there is hope for me and all perfectionists. Sally Kempton shares that, “The first line of defense against perfectionism is to learn how to give yourself permission to be who you are and where you are. That level of permission, ironically enough, is often the best platform for change…Instead of beating yourself up for not putting forth the maximum effort, thank yourself for doing what you did. Every effort is worthy of self-acknowledgement.”

Sally Kempton’s advice is simple, yet so hard to fully embrace. The art of striving for the best in everything is engrained in so many of us that even though we hear Sally’s words of wisdom it’s so hard to break the pattern of perfectionism. For now, I am encouraged by the fact that I am simply recognizing that perfectionism is holding me back in yoga and in life and, as Sally says, “every effort is worthy of self-acknowledgment.”

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