Perfection, or good enough

Like many, I see the world as a very scary place. My pursuit of “perfection” is an attempt to feel safe: if I was perfect, I would be able to anticipate threats, overcome them, achieve what I wanted to achieve, and evade the danger.

It is an attempt to feel safe rather than to be safe. The inner critic belabours me for two things: failure, and feeling bad. Failure is anything less than everything going perfectly. I noticed this when I saw that whenever I understood something, I belaboured myself as stupid for not understanding it before. I must see instantly. Nothing I achieve is good enough.

I must also act instantly, and achieve my purpose without effort. This means it is very hard to motivate myself, because performing any task is harder in actuality than in my fantasy. I won’t live up to the fantasy. But self-motivation is just another thing I must do “perfectly”, without effort.

Is it not odd that “flowing like water” in the Tao te ching is acting without effort? At least, effort in the sense of screwing up the face in concentration, desperation, fear of not managing, judgment of how I am doing. It does not feel like effort. It is human action in pursuit of a purpose, the right action at the right moment to achieve that purpose, movement and repose. Action for reality’s sake, rather than appearance’.

The inner critic also demands that I do not feel anger or fear, so I must suppress these feelings so as not to allow them in consciousness. Suppressing them just gives them power: they fight back, demanding to be heard. If I hear them, they flow through me and pass away. When I saw I was on a spiritual journey, I realised that what I wanted was not to feel these uncomfortable emotions, and my spiritual growth is helping me towards that goal: but to escape anger and fear I must feel them fully in the moment when they come. My spiritual skill is to cease to fight them, rather than in some way to gain spiritual strength to fight them harder, for that strength could never be enough.

The inner critic and its demands make it harder rather than easier to act effectively. It kept to its demands, while I learned to hack it. So if I procrastinate, I say I will do X later, when I will do it perfectly, and the Critic seems satisfied. “Later” is first the real world deadline for the action; then slightly afterwards, pushing boundaries; then never.

The Critic also seemed to accept when I decide I cannot do a certain class of actions any more. So as I retreated to my living room, the critic seemed to accept that. It only bullied me when I actually did something: so I feel I must exercise, and it bullied me while I did that. It has taken serious work to change my attitude so that I cycle that thirteen mile circuit with a cadence that is fast enough and a level of effort that I can sustain, rather than bullying myself into to high a gear and demanding too great effort, mentally whipping myself on.

In about 2009 a counsellor asked, “What do you fear?” “The monster will get me.” I did not know what the monster was, but that seemed a small child reaction. Now it seems the monster is my mother, withdrawing love and care so that I die. I am entrapped in these illusions which make me completely unsafe by a childhood trauma, my complete certainty of death in the face of which I could only submit completely.

The critic is still there, belabouring me. I can only answer it by patient, conscious work- Daniel Kahneman’s “slow thinking”. The automatic “fast thinking” is Critic thinking: the monster will get me, I must do X perfectly, I am worthless because I fail.

And, I felt completely worthless, only of value for what I could achieve.

So it seems, now, like a huge step two months ago. Before, I was feeling that my gifts of rational and emotional intelligence, strong will, and Love were wasted. I should do something with them. And then I saw that my gifts were well-used, because they accomplished my survival, and that is Good, because I am valuable, simply for myself, regardless of anything I achieve. And I become better able to see the things I can be proud of achieving, in my past and in the present.

When slow-thinking, I see I am not worthless, not a waste of space, but a human being made in the image of God so loving, creative, powerful and beautiful. Reprogramming the fast thinking to accept that is a long, difficult task.

It seems to me that if I accept that I have innate value rather than achieved value, when my being and my achievements become good enough, then I can escape the machine of illusion, the Critic and all its demands and my workarounds. I can act for myself from my own desires, rather than just the desire to keep safe and appease the Critic. I can more effectively “do the things that make me come alive”. Of course I have always done the things that make me come alive, but I would do so more, and notice that, and take joy from it, if less of my energy went to maintaining the Illusion machine.

The part of me that “comes alive” is what Quakers call “That of God” in me, my inner light, my Source. My ego is the illusion machine, which wraps round that source like ivy round a tree, draining its strength. I speak and act from Source, when only the Truth will satisfy me. The Source contains my hurt and fear, as a human being in a scary world, who will die, and yet can be Perfect as God in Heaven is perfect. Can I choose to let go ego, or the illusion machine, and act from Source all the time? I would be an adult, finally free from the Monster.

I am not sure that it is a choice. Source is valued and accepted by friends in my various Zoom discussion groups. Critic still nags and berates me. I pass my days, avoiding some things completely because I have tried and failed at them in the past. Critic seems my main problem, the attitude to the world which drains my joy and traps me in misery from which the only escape is Inaction. When I see I can do something I value, Source speaks up.

Is it something around trust? I build up sufficient trust in the world and myself to act?

Is the problem that I still feel there must be some Great Spiritual Learning, after which I will act only from Source and, with that power, carry all before me? When in the real world humans have to try again, fail again, fail better- there is always failed effort, confusion and distress that I cannot bear?

And- I am healing my wounds. I grow in valuing myself. I see my sensitivity, and how the demands I make on myself can be counter-productive. I see the scars I denied because it was too frightening to admit I could be hurt in that way. The Trauma is a deep wound to heal.

What is the next step?

2 thoughts on “Perfection, or good enough

  1. Paralysis by analysis? What information, feedback, actionless action (wu wei) do I require to feel ready to move on? My feedback loops are also my inner critic, reactive, unreasonable, paralysing me through fear, It is tiring and tiresome.

    Thanks for yet another probing essay. Your site is a wonderful source of reflection and inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

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