I recently had the most wonderful day. I woke up, read in bed with my husband, we went for a 2-hour walk exploring the land around where we live, came home and assembled a 10-foot metal rack to hold our firewood, then I made coffee and coconut macaroons, and sat down to my computer for a few hours of low-key work catching up on correspondence with friends and students. And it was on a Friday. Not a holiday. Just a regular Friday.
That’s when I got inspired to share this story with you.
These days, it’s my commitment to take one completely leisurely day each week – and in general, to practice slow living more, and step out of my tendency to fall into the constant pressure of what is now sometimes called “urgency culture,” and to pay more attention to my hungry ghosts and shadows. More on that soon.
First, I have a confession to make: I haven’t always been this way. And I’m still not always this way – though I am sharing my practice today of how I am trying to be so more – even when I’m deeply engaged in my busy workdays. Because while I thought I was this chilled-out earthy chic who did yoga, ate well, did art, gardened, and lived a great wholesome natural life, about 8 years ago I discovered I had an addiction. Not to drugs. Not to alcohol. Not to gambling. Not to sex.
Mine was different. It was Perfectionism. Dogged, painful, relentless Perfectionism.
This is not some form of subtle self-congratulatory admission, nor a hidden brag – as in how folks brag about being so busy.
No, it’s the admission of an actual problem. And it’s relevant for most women to hear anytime, and I think especially relevant at the start of a new school year, in the season that culminates in big holidays and massive to-do lists and stress over getting it all done. This is an invitation to another way.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s, post-medical school as a mom of 4 kids, the author of 8 books with another in process at the time, and business owner (that should tell you something right there), that I discovered that what I’d always thought was a commitment to a high level of excellence and social contribution, was also coupled with a well-developed, though subconscious, tendency to high-functioning Perfectionism (you can insert the word anxiety in there somewhere). I also now know it’s had a real impact on my well-being, my life, and my relationships.
Perfectionism is also a tendency that’s affecting the mental and physical health of thousands, if not millions, of women, far more so also than men, in part explaining why so many more of us are taking anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and sleep medications – or all three.
Shadow Side work is also not just about Perfectionism, though I focus in on it as a main example, and also because I know a LOT about it. It’s about the patterns we adapt that can become maladaptive and have an impact on your life, too.
Now I don’t mean to downplay the potentially life threatening and devastating addictions I mentioned by comparing them to Perfectionism. As a medical doctor who spent 3 years working in addiction medicine, and touched by the impact of addiction in the lives of some of those I have loved, I deeply recognize the devastating impact that substance (and other) addictions have on the individual who is addicted, and their family.
However, I also don’t want to ignore the fact that addiction to Perfectionism can have long-term health consequences – in fact, though much less obviously, Perfectionism can make us sick, and theoretically, ultimately, be deadly.
Perfectionism is the Shadow Side of our Superpower of doing things thoroughly, well, and having the desire to create, achieve, do. The Superpower and the Shadow are one in the same – they are the same coin, heads and tails, the same album A-side and B-side, the same you, the same trait. But the Shadow is the survival form of the trait, usually aspects of the Superpower on overdrive. The goal is to learn to live in the A-side of the Superpower, and use the B-side to identify when your Survival Mode is triggered; to recognize the B-side as a potential set of symptoms or behaviors that show up when you’re not in alignment with your most joyous, creative expression of Self.
Some of the patterns I’ve observed and have begun to codify, including sharing them in my mini-course, Shadow Work (currently Fear to Freedom, Perfectionism to Peace), include:
- Achiever/Creator: Perfectionist
- Healer/Care-Giver: Martyr
- Helper: Good Girl or People Pleaser
- Freedom Fighter: Embattled or Wounded Warrior
I’m a naturally creative and curious person who loves to create, serve, and help, and I value the beauty in attention to detail, thoroughness, and excellence. The flip side can be a relentless quest for the impossible that Perfectionism requires, frustration and impatience with the pace of my journey, comparing and despairing, always feeling like there's something I'm not doing (or doing well enough), self-judgment, and being hard on others when I hold them to the unrealistic standards I expect of myself.
You may be someone who really loves to serve other people. But the flip side can be acting as too much of a people pleaser, a good girl (which I talk about in my article, Being a Good Girl May Be Hazardous to Yourself), or you may be a healer, a volunteer, a nurturer or care-giver, but the flip side can be playing the martyr, saying yes to everyone and not taking care of yourself, possibly even becoming resentful at times as a result of carrying an unfair share of a care-giving role, or becoming compassion fatigued as happens to so many healthcare providers who give and give without a rest.
We want to lean into our wonderful qualities that stem from our own beautiful true nature, but that have become maladaptive, and notice where we’re shifting into the Shadow Side of that tendency – because it is in that shifting we can identify what’s triggering us, and we can reclaim equanimity in how we feel, and balance in how we show up in the world.
Today, I’m going to take time with you to take a deep dive into understanding Superpowers – and also the Superpowers of our Shadow Sides – those sides of ourselves that Carl Jung first described as aspects of ourselves that we repress that may be more prevalent in our lives than we’d like to face or admit to, but with a spin on the concept of Shadow as the maladaptive version of our best selves – our Superpowers. It’s something that I think could make a huge impact in your life, too. I’m going to show you how I’ve learned to live and work within these with radical awareness, self-love, and compassion.
I'm going to use Perfectionism to illustrate how our Shadow Sides can drive us too hard, and how they show up when we’re triggered by old stressors like going home for the holidays if family life is hard, being chronically stressed, facing money or relationship challenges, getting overwhelmed, feeling unsafe in our environment, or even feeling unwell or exhausted.
First, I’d like to tell you how awareness of Shadow Sides all began for me, ten years ago, with my patient Marnie. I've been exploring this ever since.
Feeding Hungry Ghosts
Marni came to see me at age 62, a wise firecracker of a woman, now in the early stages of, as she described it, ‘crash and burn.’ Her symptoms included fatigue, poor sleep, anxiety – and on top of it, a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s.
She was pressuring herself all the time to work-work-work. On top of it she was intensely committed to keeping fit, to the point that she was working out six days a week with a personal trainer for two hours at a time. And you know what. She looked great. But she was burned out. Tired and wired. Depleted. Unlike a lot of women with Hashimoto's who have trouble losing weight, she had a hard time keeping it on – because she was also skipping a lot of meals and living on smoothies and energy bars – always on the go.
As I was sitting with Marni I was wondering what was driving so much unrest. She was in a long-term happy marriage, with a partner who also happened to be financially successful. Her own career had been very successful and satisfying professionally and personally – and also financially. All of her kids were grown-up and healthy – all doctors and lawyers with kids of their own. She loved the community she lived in and had good friends. So what was the problem that was keeping this woman so internally pressured all the time?
When I asked her a little bit about her upbringing, Marni became very intense, quiet, and thoughtful, occasionally slipping into a colloquial accent she’d worked hard to overcome. She told me that she was born “very, very poor” to parents who had been born in Europe and had survived a terrible atrocity that brought them to the United States – to start over. Eventually they had five children all living in a cramped tenement apartment in a major city. From the youngest age my patient can remember she had this internal drive that started with the F-word. As in ‘I’m not going to be F’ing poor. I’m not going to live in an F’ing hell-hole my entire life. I’m not F’ing going to raise my kids like this.’
From as early as she can remember she started working, first earning and saving allowance money, then having one job and two jobs and putting herself through college at night while working during the day and on weekends – and she just kept going and going and going with this feeling that if she ever stopped she was going to be right back where she came from – poor and struggling in the ghetto.
Constant striving to be better and do more – Perfectionism – she told me, had been her best friend for as long as she could remember. It had gotten her out of poverty. It got her a highly successful career. It got her a great life with a happy marriage and successful kids. But Perfectionism was also an ever-present unquenchable beast always demanding more of her. So she pushed and pushed and pushed.
As she was sitting in front of me, all of a sudden, I saw exactly what was driving her so hard and what was leading to her symptoms and these words popped out of my mouth. “Marni, I feel like you're feeding hungry ghosts that aren't even chasing you anymore. These ghosts from your past that you're tending to every day as if they're going to come and get you if you stop.” I hadn’t seen Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts at the time, nor did I know, at least consciously, about the Hungry Ghost concept in Buddhism and mysticism. I’d heard the term in a Tracy Chapman song (Material World) and it just rose to the surface for me.
Marni looked at me and her face just kind of went blank and her jaw dropped for a second, as if a deer in the headlights. Then she exhaled an enormous sigh, her shoulders dropped, she teared up, and she said, “You’re right. I never thought of it that way, but you’re exactly right. I’m running away from something that I overcame long ago – my brain just hasn’t realized it yet! I don't know how to stop because I'm really truly afraid that if I do the whole world's going to come tumbling down.”
Marni was feeding hungry ghosts from her past – and they weren’t even chasing her anymore. She was so afraid of returning into the poverty that she came from, that she just couldn’t stop pushing herself. And for her, the ticket out of poverty was high achievement. I showed her the evidence in her life that she was already safe and successful but that her primitive brain just hadn’t registered the message. She was still living with a pattern that continued to trigger her survival mode and led to exhaustion. Perfectionism had been her best friend. It had gotten her out of poverty. It got her a highly successful career. It was the B-side of the record to her natural A-side of excellence, curiosity, and drive. It got her a great life with a happy marriage and successful kids. But Perfectionism was also an ever-present unquenchable beast always demanding more of her.
I held her gaze for a moment as this realization washed over us both, and then, in that moment, for the first time I gave my patient a prescription that I’ve given a thousand or more times since: Permission to stop feeding hungry ghosts. Permission to pause. As if she was talking to that hungry ghost, facing the Shadow, I asked her to thank her relentless tendency to push harder, do more, do better, and to let it know it had served her well. So she said: “Hey, Perfectionism, thank you for getting me here right now. Thank you for getting me to where I am in my life. All these wonderful traits that I have. But I've got it from here.”
She was now ready to live her life on different, calmer, safer terms. And she did. Months later she was doing great. She said that was a really major talking to for her. And she transformed her life. She cut back on her workouts; she added in some restorative yoga. She cut back on some of her work hours because they were work hours – even though she loved her work, she was doing some of them for the wrong reason. She started taking trips with her husband to places they wanted to go but didn’t because she was either always working or doing something for her kids or grandkids. She had a new perspective on life that did not include Perfectionism, and it felt good.
Let’s take a look at why you might feel you’re feeding hungry ghosts, too.
It’s Not Your Fault, It’s Your Default
We want to be loved. We want to be cared for. We want to fit into a group. We want to make meaningful contributions. We want to help, to connect. We want to be validated, seen, heard, accepted, and recognized. These are deep, profound, primally psychological human needs – because they are all part of what have, on an evolutionary scale, and even now for much of our lives, kept us safe, fed, housed, clothed, and connected to our tribe. They're all part of human security. Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They're all part of what allows us and enables us quite literally to survive. Think about our ancestors way back when – if you didn't fit in with your tribe you wouldn't have gotten food, you wouldn't have been able to perform all the survival skills that you needed on your own. This mentality is still alive and well – it’s considered to be one of the reasons teenagers will stand in a queue outside a store for hours to purchase the latest style of sneakers – or why grown-ass adults will do the same to have the latest iPhone. Yes, there’s wanton commercialism in our culture – but these are also status symbols that show we fit in.
When we're not getting the love or recognition or safety or security or stability that we need, survival mode kicks in. It can look something like this: When you're a little baby, you go coo and goo and make cute faces and smile and babble and gurgle and burp and fart and all the things that babies do that make parents laugh and giggle and smile. If you do those things and your healthy parent gives you coos and giggles and smiles back, you get the brain feedback that you need that all is well in your world, that you live in a safe home where there's peace and calm. Most of the time there's food on the table, and not a lot of talk in the background about money worries or social worries or parenting worries; you feel safe and everything's AOK in your world and you're getting the feedback that you need.
One of the things that happens if your parent is, for example, depressed and they look back at you and you're ‘gooing and cooing' and making all these appropriate baby gestures to get your parent to smile at you and love you, but your parent just can't because she or he is depressed and their face is flat – you're not getting appropriate signals. Your little tiny baby brain starts to recognize something is missing through a flat facial expression. When we see that in people we know something's not right, that your world is not AOK. You learn to either ramp up efforts at attention getting, or you give up and perhaps even go flat yourself.
Now let's fast forward to maybe when you're four or six or eight. And that same depressed parent isn't responding appropriately. Or maybe you have an alcoholic parent or a parent who rages or is emotionally unstable and you learn what their facial expressions are before they're going to start flying off the handle or throwing things or raging or hitting someone. Or you live in an unsafe neighborhood, are a victim of racism, bullying, or any other of the many threats different humans experience – and you learn to adapt behaviors that keep you as safe and successful in your environment as possible. Perhaps you learn that if you make a little joke or please that person or you “take the blow,” that it offsets either you getting hurt or someone else getting hurt. Perhaps you become the Good Girl, or fly under the radar by playing it small so you don't get too much attention on you, or you become the Perfectionist because being perfect in your family makes that person happy and pleases them, makes your depressed parent finally come out of their depression or makes your parent who is enraged at least have something to praise you about.
Or maybe you're somebody who can never please that person in your family, so you're on an eternal quest to be better and better and better. Or maybe you're the one in the family who has to keep the peace so that your parents don't bicker and fight. Or maybe you're the one who is doing all the housework or the pickup or cheering that depressed parent or getting the other kids to school in the morning.
You see how we start to adapt behaviors that come in a quest for safety and they become so second nature, so subconscious, that we think that’s just who we are and this is just how life is.
In neurobiology we have an expression – “what’s wired together fires together.” And that’s what happens – what's wired together – all those primitive memories, sensations, facial expressions, or what we might call triggers – are now firing together, and that’s what gets activated. The whole set of what were once adaptive, but now are maladaptive behaviors, sets in motion. And they’re activated even when dormant by triggers that remind us, no matter how subtly or subconsciously, of that time of unmet basic need or safety or belonging.
We all have default modes – patterns we develop early on that keep us safe, loved, fed, part of the tribe, alive, and that either drive us, or that we fall into during times of stress. Sometimes you might even be stuck in these patterns because you've been doing them for so long you don't remember any other way. Without you even realizing it, they may be causing you a lot stress, burden, sadness, grief, overwhelm, burnout – causing you to make choices in your life that aren't the best for you. Because you’re trying to be safe and fit in and do it all right. But you’re not actually listening to your inner compass anymore and you’re not living your own, most emotionally regulated, evolved best life. You’re living in the Shadow.
Doctor, Heal Thyself!
Very early on in life I learned that being high achieving kept me safe, secure, praised, and loved. The more science fairs and spelling bees I won, the more obvious it became. By age 14, demonstrating my smarts got me out of a less-than-healthy childhood home situation and into college. Being in high achievement mode quite possibly saved my life. Seriously.
Here’s how that equation looked to my primitive brain: Achievement = Approval/Praise/”Love”/Valued = Safety/Survival
Simple, right? Yeah, actually, it is. And since this same formula just kept on working, being in constant overdrive to achieve and accomplish became my survival default.
For years, mine worked out great for me. As long as I kept accomplishing more and more, I was okay. I felt safe. And eventually accomplishment became connected to money, lack of which was one of the primal fear triggers from my childhood, so I started saying yes to most everything, and taking on more and more. Life became all about accomplishment. Eventually, though, I had too much on my plate and though I was handling it well on the outside, I started to notice that my work was too often accompanied by anxiety and pressure. Sometimes I was working so hard that I was losing sleep, skipping a meal, or favoring a project over exercise. This also started to happen along with the age of the Internet, so I found it increasingly easy – and tempting – to compare myself to others, compounding my stress and worry.
I might have just kept going that way, and perhaps it all would have been fine. More likely though, I would, like so many women, eventually develop worsening anxiety, burnout, or other symptoms. My fate changed when I met my patient, Marni. That night, sitting at my dining table typing up Marni’s medical recommendations, I had an epiphany – I was doing the same thing!
A quick note on my back story if you’ve not previously heard me share it. I grew up in a New York City housing project with a single mom and I left home at 15 to go to college to become a doctor. I had actually gotten into college at 14 which is all well and good. And yes, smart and precocious and fantastic and a really interesting story of how I went from a housing project to home birth midwife to Yale M.D. But the interesting part of it is that, like Marni, I had some of the same kind of high stress drive propelling me forward. My inherent abilities with words, writing, science, and reading people became talents I could capitalize on to save my life.
I learned very early that being super high achieving high performing and learning how to interpret – and deliver what people wanted from me – to perform as expected and then some – was my golden ticket out of my housing project and a highly stressful home life. Let’s just say I have a high ACE (adverse childhood events) score.
Now I didn't know at 3 and 6 and 12 years old that my abilities + skills at using them were going to get me into college really early – nor that they would, in the most beautiful way, launch me on a career that is deeply satisfying and a life path that's nourishing and fulfilling and well compensated, allowing me to do all that I love – explore, write, teach, create, and serve others. All I knew is that if I kind of did the dance and smiled the smile and gave the right answers on tests, in contests, and at family gatherings I got rewarded with lavish praise – and love. And that back part or that Shadow part of the story also like Marni kept me on hyperdrive – I felt in my deepest organs and heard in my most frequent thoughts that if I just keep doing this I will not stay stuck in poverty. I will not stay stuck in a stressful home that had verbal and sometimes even physical abuse.
High achievement became my driver. In my 40s I was saying yes to everything and always worried about saying no – that if I didn't please people, take the opportunity, or give 250% to it, it was all going to fall apart – if I didn't constantly work, the money wasn't going to be there – and I would literally have recurring dreams that I was going to be back in that housing project apartment. Of note, did you know that one of women’s biggest fears is becoming a ‘bag lady?” In fact, this is known as Bag Lady Syndrome.
I was feeding Hungry Ghosts that were no longer chasing me. After a lot of years in overdrive, and being in the ‘power club’ of medical training which only amplified my Perfectionism, I heard an inner voice say, “Baby girl,” (my Inner Wise Woman was clearly channeling the voice of my dear friend, Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., who calls me ‘baby girl’ in the most loving big sisterly fashion), “Give yourself permission to pause, too, starting now. ” I soon learned that in Buddhist philosophy the term Hungry Ghosts represents an addiction, an unmet need, an emotional wound, that, no matter how much we feed it, it’s never satisfied. Those words I’d heard long ago in a Tracy Chapman song had a meaning far more relevant to my own life than I'd realized at the time.
My patient’s symptoms and life story turned out to be a wake-up call for me. Since then I’ve made tremendous shifts in my mindset that have led not only to the satisfying work I’m now doing, but as importantly, to the much more relaxed way I’m living my life. But it wasn’t until I’d identified and named my own Shadow Side and the hungry ghosts I was trying to feed with it, that I also began to help my patients find their own for themselves.
Perfectionism: A Symptom of SOS
Perfectionism, I discovered from my research for my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, (a book about burnout for women), is a symptom of being in Survival Overdrive Syndrome (or SOS) – a term I coined that refers to the phenomenon technically known as allostatic load – or getting “stuck in survival mode.”
Survival mode is a series of responses that begin in the part of your brain (your amygdala) that monitor your inner and outer world for any evidence of danger, and when danger is sensed, set off a cascade of chemical and neurological reactions, including the production and release of adrenaline and cortisol by your adrenal glands, to get you ready to fight or flee the danger – that’s why it’s called the fight or flight response, though the additional responses of freeze (think deer in the headlights) or fawn (think people pleasing) have also been identified as patterns.
Somewhere along the trajectory of our lives, usually early on, Perfectionists got the message that achievement was connected to safety or security in the form of being loved, accepted, appreciated, seen, heard, or maybe not rejected, hit, or abused. The behaviors that protected you and helped you feel safe got wired together – and while these behaviors were initially adaptive, they can eventually become maladaptive causing us more stress than good.
Perfectionism With a ‘Capital P’
When I use the word Perfectionism, notice it’s with a capital P. As in the Persistent Painful Pressure to be Perfect. It’s the never-ending angsty feeling that you always have to do better, do more, be better, be more, prove yourself, to be fitter, smarter, or more successful – or however Perfectionism shows up for you – that’s causing you chronic internal unrest.
Perfection, importantly, is not the same as excellence. Don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of packing up my ambition and drive and sending them walking – they’re a natural aspect of who I am.
But Perfectionism, in fact, keeps us from true excellence because anxiety keeps us from unleashing our Inner Wise Woman and truest, deepest, fiercest, strongest, most fun, juicy, exciting creative powers on the world. Instead we play it safe so we get that approval we’re looking for. Nor does it bring us satisfaction. Quite the contrary. We almost never feel satisfied or say to ourselves, “Job well done, woman,” even if the rest of the world is telling us that.
Here are some of the symptoms that suggest you may be struggling with Perfectionism:
- You’re frequently or chronically stressed out or overwhelmed because of a lengthy to-do list.
- You pretty much always feel that you could or should be doing more.
- “Should,” while we’re at it, is an oft-repeated word in your vocabulary.
- You frequently compare yourself to others as in “Is she accomplishing more than I am?” “Is she just fundamentally better than I am? I mean maybe even genetically?”
- You generally feel that you haven’t accomplished enough in your life and should be further along at something – or everything.
- You compare and despair (and social media may make this worse for you!)
- You have black and white thinking – you’re either successful or you’re a failure, and your happiness and inner peace go up and down based on external validation and successes.
- You often experience frustration at yourself for not meeting your own standards.
- You worry a lot, or struggle with anxiety.
- You pretty much always feel you could have “done it better.”
- You hold yourself back from something you dream of doing because you’re afraid to fail; you have analysis paralysis – everything has to be perfect before you do it/show it/release it.
- You’re on a perpetual quest for self-improvement (i.e. physically, emotionally, spiritually, professionally, financially).
- You communicate with others based on your accomplishments; you feel you have to present yourself to others as perfect.
- You have unrealistic expectations of others and get irritable, critical, or easily frustrated when others aren’t living up to your standards or expectations.
Hungry Ghosts, the Shadow Side and Your Adrenals
At some point adaptive patterns can become maladaptive, and become part of maladaptation in the stress response system. For example, Perfectionism can create the same set of internal stress reactions and releases those same potentially toxic hormones as do other forms of chronic stress. Perfectionism is also addictive, causing us to seek and try to achieve more and more success as the “fix.” As with any addiction, the satisfaction from achievement often doesn’t last long, and may be accompanied by intense fears and anxieties, for example, fear of failure in the future, fear of disappointing others who expect highly of you, becoming hyper vigilant and hyper responsible, experiencing ‘imposter syndrome,' feeling like you weren’t actually as good as you could have been, and on and on. In fact, Perfectionists have a higher rate of anxiety, depression, and suicide than our non-Perfectionist peers.
When you are in a constant or chronic state of internal stress, as is the case with most Perfectionists, your body believes that it is in danger. As a result, a cascade of stress hormones is released that put you in a state of red alert and heightened reactivity. These hormones are part of a survival mechanism that has been with us since the dawn of time and that allows us to run away from – or fight off – threats. That’s why it’s called the fight or flight response. It’s supposed to be a mechanism that kicks in only on occasion, when we need it, and then when it shuts off, our systems go back to a natural relaxed state.
Perfectionism can lead to imbalances in our cortisol production due to us being under so much stress, and can ultimately lead to anxiety, overwhelm, and fatigue from taking on too much and not sleeping enough, burnout, digestive problems, blood sugar and insulin problems, hormonal imbalances, depression, and immune system problems, including autoimmune diseases.
Further, Perfectionism can be a form of addiction but unlike more obviously harmful addictions, for example to drugs, sex, or gambling, Perfectionists get praised for ours. The more we achieve, the more opportunities, job promotions, money, and recognition we might receive. So it becomes a vicious cycle of achievement, approval, and exhaustion.
When we’re exposed to stress hormones day in and day out, as happens to most perfectionists, over time there can be havoc in your mind and body. Here are just some of the things that can happen:
- You gain weight around your middle (belly fat, muffin tops)
- You have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, you wake up too early, or no matter how much you sleep, you never really feel fully rested
- You have sugar, carb, or salt cravings – or all of them
- You feel run down a lot, overwhelmed, overly reactive, or burnt out
- Your hormones are all over the place
- You feel anxious, blue, or downright depressed
- You have high blood sugar, insulin resistance, or diabetes
- You have high blood pressure
- Your digestive system is off kilter
- You're having trouble focusing, your thinking is foggy, or your memory just isn't what it should be.
You may recognize these as symptoms of overdrive or fatigue in your adrenals. That's because it's your brain and adrenal glands, through a primitive, conserved system called the stress response, or the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis), that is responsible for this survival system – and when the survival response is stuck in the on position, your systems go haywire!
Out of Survival Mode
Your survival default modes aren’t a bad thing. They are the Shadow Side of your innate, beautiful powerful traits. It’s just that your naturally high level of inner drive and determination, curiosity, capacity to ‘multitask,’ sense of responsibility, and your intelligence got co-opted and amplified for a specific purpose – to keep you safe.
Being high achieving isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good quality to have in your doctor, for example. You want a doctor who doesn’t like to miss details, is willing to work overtime returning calls, and who wants to know everything about their specialty so studies a lot. But Perfectionism is different than excellence, having big dreams and strong goals. Perfectionism has a dark side.
So many of us have internalized a seemingly bottomless ocean of negative messages telling us we’re just not good enough that we work ourselves to the bone working on ourselves, plagued by a feeling of not being good enough. Ever. It’s a real fun-sucker. Underlying so much of it is this implicit message that we are not enough – that we always have to be working on ourselves, getting better, thinking better, doing more juicing, stretching, journaling, therapy, etc.
And if we “fail” at whatever it was that we were setting out to do (more on the beauty of “failure” in a future article, too) well, it was our own damned fault. If we had just studied harder, visualized more, meditated more deeply, done more yoga, focused on more positive thoughts – well — we’d have gotten that “100%.”
The awesome news is that due to something called neuroplasticity, which means you can literally change how your brain is physically and chemically wired, you don’t have to keep living out that old pattern if it isn’t working for you anymore. You can keep the upside of your traits while thanking the downside and kissing it goodbye. You get to give yourself permission to turn off the pressure, replenish yourself, relax, and know that you’re still safe and loved – and now you get to love yourself, too! In doing so, you’ll also start to reverse the physical symptoms that may have resulted from Perfectionism running the show.
Going from Perfectionism to inner peace is a matter of time, healing, mindful self-awareness, self-compassion, and practice. Rinse and repeat.
It wasn’t until I turned down a renewal contract on a high-profile job in a prominent medical practice, freeing myself from a long history of saying yes to something because it looked good, rather than it feeling good, to honoring my inner truth, that I recognized that I’d spent decades with an inner stress motor running. When I walked away from that contract, my entire inner self got quiet – the way your home gets quiet when the power goes out in an electrical storm – and for the first time in a long time, I had a chance to reflect on how I really felt and how I really, really want to feel in my life. It was then that I realized I suffered from an addiction to perfectionism – having spent years trying to be the best professionally, as a mom, in my health – pretty much in everything. And I realized it was causing me unnecessary anxiety and stress. It was affecting my sleep and my focus. It was skewing what I said yes to, fearing that if I said no, I might miss an opportunity (yup, FOMO!).
So I stopped all of that. I let myself truly embrace and FEEL the inner peace I wanted to live my life with and act from, and committed to using that feeling as my decision-making and life experience compass.
This doesn’t mean I'm not in hot pursuit of being GREAT at what I do – we can still be master jammers on whatever we love to do. But it does mean we're in the driver's seat of our ambition, not driven to exhaustion by it.
What’s been amazing to me in this new way of approaching my life is that all of the energy I used to put into worrying, pushing, and striving is now freed up just to be creative, serve, and love – and sometimes even just do nothing. I’m more of a powerhouse in my life than I’ve ever been. I sleep better, feel better, and have so much more fun. I’m gentler with myself – and others – and I know what’s important in my life. And I realized, as Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
I’ve also translated this inner peace into how I teach, what I teach about, and how I help my patients. My approach to women’s health has profoundly shifted into emphasizing learning how we want to feel, listening to our bodies, being infinitely and radically self-loving, reconciling the inconsistencies between how we want to feel and how we spend most of our time actually feeling, and learning how to feel truly successful in our lives. In shifting this mindset, it becomes easier for my students and patients to achieve their own personal and health goals, because when we are kind to ourselves, we release enormous amounts of potential energy for healing, creating, learning, and expanding our minds to explore greater possibilities. We sleep better and as a result we eat better, think more clearly, and have more energy. As those stress hormones clear from our systems, we lose stubborn weight, get sick less often, our hormones become more regular, brain fog clears up, inflammation goes away…
While I'm still sometimes tempted to pick up the old perfectionist habits, I catch myself by recognizing the difference in how I feel when I am in the flow of creative process, following my passion and doing things beautifully, well and deeply, versus in a quest for Perfectionism. The former is accompanied by a feeling of being in my zone, losing track of time, no self-consciousness, ease, peace; the latter by a feeling of compulsion, tension, and pressure – and that inner motor is churning. When those feelings rise up, I remind myself to take a deep breath, and thank those old habits that helped me survive and get out of a tough place at one time in my life. I then tell them their services are no longer needed, and I reconnect with how I want to feel – truly free, at peace in myself, quiet, creative, joyous.
I invite you to join me in doing the same.
Here are seven simple practices I used to heal my own Perfectionism, and which still continue to help me live my live with more ease and enjoyment. I still get jangled and frustrated and overwhelmed just like everyone else does. But it happens much less often and I don't spin out as far as spin out a little bit, and I catch it because I know what it feels like to have that inner quiet. And I know what it feels like to be in disharmony. And frankly I don't like the feeling of disharmony. I like the feeling of inner quiet and the amazing thing is I haven't gotten any less done. I've just gotten more done that I love to do.
Notice the Signs of Perfectionism
The first thing I want you to do is just notice. Pay attention and catch yourself if you find yourself Comparing. Saying yes when you want to – or really need to – say no. Or falling into any of the other signs of Perfectionism I mentioned above – or if you related to other patterns, like finding yourself being a people pleaser, martyr, good girl, etc.. Simply stop in the moment, own and acknowledge your pattern, notice what’s going on – what’s the trigger, who are you with, what’s the situation, where in your body are the sensations associated with this located. For example, when I'm out of alignment with my superpower of excellence and creating and instead, am drifting into Perfectionism, I feel this as disharmony between my solar plexus and my throat, so I breathe into that place the drop my breath into a deeper place in my body as part of shifting out of the familiar behavior. Importantly, notice feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and distress and take these as signs you've crossed over from healthy stress and hard work into “SOS” – survival overdrive syndrome.
Give Yourself Permission to Pause
High-performance athletes and business people know this and make time for recharging and rejuvenating, getting massages, hitting the spa, or getting outdoors to unwind, clear their heads, and decompress. So why do we women – and especially moms – find it so hard to make time for ourselves? Why are we riddled with guilt? Because somewhere along the line we got the idea that it’s self-indulgent to practice self-care, we’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t have enough time, or most likely, both. But self-care is health care! Hitting the pause button puts us more in touch with our inner knowing, and gives us important time to replenish and rest – super important if you naturally are a high octane woman, and also important if you’re someone who needs more down time to have energy for that big world out there. I promise you your world won't come tumbling down. And actually if you give yourself more permission to be at peace to be comfortable inside yourself and not dogging yourself so much you're actually going to find that your creative powers your inspiration your motivation your energy and your focus start to come back and become amplified.
Quiet Automatic Negative Thoughts
I'm not someone who believes in toxic positivity – but I do know that many of us are plagued by a host of unwelcome thoughts that cause us distress. These Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are like that old song, “You’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good, I’m gonna say it again…” playing over (and over) in your head. She’s the relentless inner critic.
The first thing to do is again, to simply notice. But this time notice background thoughts, loud or subtle, that seem to just propagate your brain space all on their own. You don’t have to do anything else. Just see them. Then remind yourself, they’re just thoughts, fleeting words, they’re echoes of default messages you picked up along the journey of your life – they’re not truths. Then imagine your best friend said that she was having that thought? What loving words would you say to her? What would your best friend say to you if you shared those thoughts with her? Need some help? You’re beautiful. You’re a badass powerhouse. You’re an woman with a big heart, wise mind, and a luminous spirit. And a powerful reframe for Perfectionism? I am perfect just as I am. I am enough. More than enough. And remember: Perfect is the enemy of the good. If you spend so much time waiting for it to be perfect, you'll never do it.
Use these healing words as a mantra whenever the thoughts come up, combined with some gentle deep breathing for 30 seconds. The thoughts will pass, they will return less often, and they will be replaced more quickly with your loving words. Does it happen overnight? It can! It’s more often a lifelong practice or noticing and reframing. But it really does work.
When you compare, you’re defining your own self-worth in relationship to someone else, rather than honoring your own beautiful uniqueness. Comparing can lead you to feel isolated (you’re not good enough to belong), exhausted (trying to keep up or win), and judgmental (not usually a good feeling).
As a perfectionist-in-recovery I am quite familiar with comparing. I conquered my habit of it in a strange way. Every time I found myself comparing myself to someone else (invariably, someone in my professional field who I felt was “running circles around me”), I’d go to their website or social media page and drop a “Like.” By giving a shout-out, I was reminding myself that there’s room for all of us, and honoring, rather than diminishing that person. In retrospect, I was also doing a “good deed” which our brains reward by dialing down the Stress Response so it was a win-win. Interestingly, over the years, I’ve learned that there really is room for us all, and we’re all needed. So comparing just wastes your precious time from bringing your gifts to the world while you’re distracted by someone else’s.
Stop “Should-ing” On Yourself
Should-ing on yourself thoughts sound like this: I should be thinner, more successful, married (with two kids) by now, in better shape, healthier, own my own house, have more money in the bank, have a better job…the list goes on. In my early 20s a much older woman (I think she was at least 40) who mentored me in my midwifery career said “Honey, take the word should right out of your vocabulary. You’ll have a much happier life.” Only then did I begin to notice how often I “should-ed” on myself. Taking out the should is a tough exercise, especially if you say it as often as I did, but how we talk to ourselves really does influence how we feel. If you want to get out of the “should” pressure cooker, 86 the word completely for 3 weeks. You’ll see what I mean. And the next time you ‘should on yourself’ about your yoga class, a detox, or something else you have to do or give up, ask yourself if it’s actually in your best interest, or whether it’s Perfectionism driving you!
Practice Radical Self-Love
You’re not a continual self-improvement project! The “self-health movement,” always seems to be pushing us to be more spiritual, healthier, cleaner, better, and thinner, adding to the problem for so many women. Not only is it exhausting to be in a constant quest for self-improvement, it’s harmful. It keeps us in overdrive and overwhelm. We feel we’re never able to do enough, do it all, or take downtime, yet we say yes to doing more, we exercise harder, stay up later to get more done, all in compensation for feeling we’re not enough just with who we are and where we are and what we’re doing right now.
I would like to propose that we are all Good Enough. That we are all amazing, fantastic expressions of beauty, creativity, kindness, and good intention. That this, rather than a self-deficit mindset, is the starting place from which to launch your dreams and visions and desires to grow even more sublime.
Here it is: With a deep inhalation to the count of six you say to yourself: I AM BEAUTIFUL and on an exhalation to the count of six you say AS I AM. Repeat 3 more times. That’s it. 48 seconds. Then rather than a battle with a self that needs to be thinner, healthier, more successful, or whatever it is that plagues you about not being good enough, you make healthy choices from a place of self-love and it all becomes the art of enjoyment. Your green juice becomes a celebration of your desire to be healthy and delight your body with high quality food information for your cells not a battle with your sugar cravings, your yoga becomes a celebration of moving your body not a battle with your belly fat, your visualization be a joyous act of creative self-expression not a mind game to get yourself out of a stuck situation.
Radical self-love starts with self-acceptance and self-compassion. Some of my favorite authors on these topics are Kristin Neff, Brene Brown, and Tara Brach. All good reads (or listens) if you want to go deeper.
Count Your Wins
Most of us, and perhaps especially so Perfectionists, tend to think of all the things we didn’t get done, rather than giving ourselves credit for the things we have – small or big. In fact, we tend to spend a lot of time in seeing the accomplishment glass half full. To shift that, make it a practice each evening before you go to bed to recount at least one thing you did that day that made you feel good about yourself – whether that was holding a door open for an elderly person at a grocery store, saying something kind to someone, or checking some things off of your to-do list that have been nagging at you, or some bigger win that you’re excited by or proud of. We all deserve praise, and who better to get it from than your own best friend (you). Plus, optimism and gratitude release hormones that counteract the Stress Response and rewire your brain so you don’t get stuck in SOS, and weirdly, there’s scientific evidence that optimism can help you to attract more success into your life though a neurobiological phenomenon called positivity bias – so experimenting with a new rose-tinted lens on yourself might not be so bad to try.
These days I’m really proud of myself. After that appointment with Marni, I realized my Inner Wise Woman was there all along, quietly whispering to me that it’s safe to relax. I was just too busy pushing to hear her. I practiced letting myself stop pushing so hard and I stopped beating myself up for not attaining Perfectionism. I stopped wanting to be! I realized that I could live a whole new way – enjoying my creative process, which yes, is sometimes hard and requires a lot of work, but without cracking an inner whip on myself.
I’ve learned to have more compassion for myself and understanding of the reasons I became a Perfectionist, honoring my powerful, wild, deep survival instinct that got me here today. Yes, someday I forget and I spiral out. Sometimes I’m tempted to take on that one more thing and I try to catch myself. Most importantly, I welcome and embrace a softer, decidedly more feminine approach to my life along with my love of learning, writing, creating, and sometimes even being so far into the ‘zone’ that I do occasionally forget to eat or sleep. This is all me and who I am. I’ve learned to see the Universe as a safe and friendly place. And I’ve learn to let myself rest when I need to. I hope you will, too. You deserve it. I also appreciate getting to share this with you – because we teach what we need to continue to learn. So thank you.
You are worthy. I invite you to join me today by accepting and loving yourself exactly how, where, and who you are. Right this second. Start from saying “Yes, I am AMAZING.” And doing it from a place of full self-love.