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Drowning in Perfectionism & Floating with Mindfulness

At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.

~Michael Law

Pernicious and masked, the beastly affliction of perfectionism pops hopes and dreams into its cavernous mouth, swiftly swallowing them whole. While some are convinced that perfectionism drives us to do our best, more regularly perfectionism leads to harmful self-criticism and impossibly high standards for others. Do we even know who has set the standard for the ‘perfection’ that we’re following? Comparative and competitive in its scope, perfectionism attracts the company of anxiety, depression and pointlessness, tragically dragging our divine human spark into the muck pit of specious perfectionism. In this material age, images of prescribed perfection are broadcast to us in a brainwashing drone, constantly reminding us of what we lack and how we just don’t measure up. How do we break this baleful cultural trance and let ourselves off the hook?

In the field of mindfulness, we understand that negative thinking patterns (a primary feature of perfectionism) ooze into a stream of mindlessness, where the mind goes on automatic with a ‘ceaseless flow of trivia and trash’[1] and the brain ceases to make anything but habitual decisions. When there is little to no awareness about the content of this mindless stream, we fall victim to the well-grooved paths of dualistic, polarized, restricted ways of being that directly affect our ability to enjoy the unfolding moment. The din of perfectionism insists that something is wrong, something needs to be changed, controlled or manipulated, and impels either dogged action or defeatist distraction. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali promises that when we can begin to still the “vacillating perceptions of the mind”,[2] we can catch a glimpse of our unadulterated Self that needs no qualification or legitimation; this occurs through “consistent earnest practice and dispassionate non-attachment.”[3]

Though seemingly lofty, the practice of meditation stands as the principal tool in mindfulness approaches, for its volitional advance into stillness and the development of ‘dispassionate non-attachment’ or witness consciousness. In meditation we learn how to pivot away from the charge of our thoughts and toward spacious awareness. Through ‘consistent earnest practice,’ we begin to see that just because we believe something, doesn’t make it true, and the power of crystallized trains of adverse thought begin to dissolve.  Because life is happening so fast and “there is more to life than increasing its speed” (Mahatma Gandhi), meditation beckons enticingly, inviting us to drop all the standards, all the white noise of who we never could be, should be, or are ashamed to be, and rise above the surface of asphyxiating perfectionism.

[1] Dillard, Annie, Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, p. 35

[2] Stiles, Mukunda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 2, v. I,2

[3] Stiles, Mukunda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 4, v. I, 12

Wondering if you’re a perfectionist? Take this self-test from Psychology Today


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