Heartstyles blog

Why striving/perfectionism gets in the way of self-growth


Dr. Mara Klemich – Founder & Consulting Psychologist

In our modern world, it can seem that high paced action is rewarded. Do more. Be more. Have more. Get up at 5 a.m. Fit five actions in before 8am. Be more creative. Post better pictures. Buy a bigger house. Get the perfect life. We tweet the latest wisdom about getting enough sleep—at 12:30 am while catching up on the news of the day. We attend workshops on the latest tips for improving our focus—with our devices set to silent yet still buzzing for attention.

Striving can be how we prove to the world that we’re 'good enough.' But this also comes with a price and is also the path to incredible stress, burnout, even depression. I call striving the evil twin of achieving. Of course, nothing about it is 'evil,' but it does an excellent job of masquerading as achieving and then taking all of the joy and fulfilment out of accomplishment. When we’re striving, we are attached to how well things are done, or how good things look, or how good we look to support our self-worth and identity. Think of the military-precision organised linen cupboard with beautifully ironed sheets—with no one allowed to mess up the order or just throw things on the shelf.

Striving can be so subtle to those of us in the grip of it, that we can even become striving when we are making a salad – having to have everything just so. Even worse, after letting someone else make the salad after they asked to help us, yet we continually tell them 'you’re not doing it right!' We can suck the joy out of a potentially lovely relationship time by being so focused on making sure a task is done just right (because our self worth is attached to it), that we totally miss the moments of relationship with others who wanted to help out. Really, let’s face it: is the entire lunch going to be a disaster because Johnny cut the tomatoes for the salad in a different way than you would?

We can be so busy judging outcomes that we don’t even bother to praise ourselves for working hard to get the job done or for sticking to our commitments. We can become entirely focused on results. We set up a paradigm in which it is impossible to feel like we’ve achieved something with excellence and feel positive about ourselves. The harder we go at something, the more emotionally invested we become, and become even more devastated if we fall short (which we usually feel we do if we’re in Striving mode!).

A lot of us believe that without striving/perfectionism, we wouldn’t have the motivation to achieve excellence. So we set ourselves impossibly high (and unrealistic) standards - oh and expect those for everyone else too. It just creates a damaging cycle.

We need to challenge our inner critic that judges us to beless than we are.

It’s time to kill that inner critic – or at least prune it back a lot! In reality, if we’re honest with ourselves, that inner critic is a bit nuts – the great calamities it predicts don’t come to pass, yet we go around and around in those negative thoughts.

When choosing to silence our inner critic and move into our authentic selves, we choose to accept that we can’t be great at everything – and that is ok. That we are enough. The key to breaking out of the Striving loop is to focus on what we are doing well, rather than what we’re not accomplishing, and to believe we are enough without having to have a tasky outcome to prove it. It sounds easier said than done, but it can be done with consistent, paced steps. Every week, challenge yourself to focus on one thing that you did well. It can be something big, or something small (EG. I asked Johnny to put away the towels in the linen cupboard, and I did notgo in after him to straighten them up). It may sound funny, but that devious Striving is sometimes hard to identify for the nasty little thing it is! It makes others feel not good enough too, and can cut to the heart. Allow yourself to congratulate yourself in just being who you are and the way you went about something – not necessarily the outcome/result.

Prune that inner critic daily, and you’ll come up smelling like roses. Oh, and maybe practice gratitude for all the things in your life that allow you to grow, will help you stop and smell the roses, not just rush by them in a sweat of stress. Get those authentic and transforming secateurs out and prune that inner critic. You, and everyone else around you, will be a happier person because of it, and your relationships will become more heart-felt.

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