Running on empty: how our ideas can exhaust us

Many people who come to see me arrive exhausted. And it’s not from the lack of a good night’s sleep, or from running a marathon. It’s from the constant rigid and unrelentingly high standards they impose on themselves and the world and the persistent fear of not meeting these standards. 

It’s absolutely exhausting to have to adhere to a rigid picture of how we believe things should be. Even actors get days off. The slightly added complication is that many of us believe that should we let go of some of these standards, we might be exposed to others as awful, weird, failures, alien and therefore be rejected, humiliated and cast out. We also might believe that if we let them soften a bit, things might really get out of control and snowball into disaster. It’s a bit like being too scared to stop wearing a corset for fear that without the constricting contour, no natural figure will form and things will get really messy and out of control. For many people it doesn’t even feel like there are other options and for others, it is simply too frightening a thought to contemplate.


Perfectionism as an adaptive coping mechanism

The current literature sometimes calls this constellation of experiences ‘perfectionism.’ I prefer Elizabeth Gilbert’s definition of perfectionism as being ‘fear dressed up in high heels.’ Perfectionism is quite a neat and tidy word for a very punitive and scary landscape. It speaks of our efforts to tidy up ourselves and the world. What is not often added is that this way of being, of imposing a pre-emptive format onto ourselves and the world, is a way of coping that many of us have developed for an adaptive reason. 

We do this to make scary experiences in our childhoods feel more ordered, we do this to help ourselves feel a little more in control of things. It’s easier for a child to think that things are their fault than to think that perhaps the adults aren’t on top of things or are unpredictable and fragile. Or simply that bad things can happen. If things are my fault, the child’s unconscious says, then if I try really really hard, I can fix them and make it so that nobody hurts me and nothing falls apart. To do this though, we have to marshall ironclad self-criticism and over inflate our influence on the world. We have to be harder on ourselves than anyone else could be, and in this way, prevent ambush. We have to make sure the world goes according to our plan, thus preventing disaster which feels like it lurks just round the corner. 

Short term gain and long term pain

The result? Well usually at first, this might work well. Children with these habitual ways of coping usually work really hard and achieve highly. Often this applies to control of the body too, and a habit of becoming what we think will please others so as to make sure nothing can go wrong in our relationships. We seem likeable and nice, and if we’re lucky, get good grades, look good and life unfolds in the way we intend. We miss out on play, we miss out on learning to recover from setbacks, we miss out on connecting with others and realising that they too fear rejection, we miss out on correcting the belief that we’re not fundamentally flawed because we don’t talk honestly with others. We thus confirm the sense of danger, and we feel that unless we persist in being these shiny, perfect, assembled beings we are nothing and will have nothing. 

So while things may look good from the outside we’re getting deeper into the quicksand as time passes. Inevitably we get exhausted. Inevitably there is a setback. Inevitably we can’t control everything and discipline our desires. Inevitably, we feel lonely and like something is missing. Or, we just avoid anything that we won’t excel at and deprive ourselves of living and this too isn’t ok. Or heaven forbid, someone or something interrupts our ability to control things, like a pesky interloper messing with our intricate system. 

People who have perfectionistic tendencies are often more anxious and more prone to feeling isolated and depressed for this reason. Working with perfectionism takes time because it’s a big ask. It’s working with someone to drop their number one coping strategy and dip a toe into the big scary they’ve been avoiding. This can never happen overnight or neatly much to the chagrin of the part that wants a formula for tidying themselves up and making themselves ‘better.’

So what can we do?

That being said, these are a few key ideas and tools that may help: 

  • Identifying the adaptive function of imposing so much control. When did this habit start and what was it trying to help? This paves the way to have a bit of a relationship with this part of ourselves instead of feeling like that it is all of who we are. In time, it helps us to notice and label it when it comes up
  • Gently challenge the all or nothing thinking and catastrophic predictions this part makes: it’s either this or that, success or failure, right or wrong, good or bad. We encourage a more experimental method and a learning versus achievement orientation. We can be in control of an experimental method so not all is lost
  • Through gently experimenting with other options than all or nothing, or the rigid ideas we have with how things have to be, we start to discover that the system has more flexibility than we assumed, and that we can cope with being ‘unmasked’ a little…in fact that nothing terrible lurks beneath, that the only thing wrong is our belief that there is. 
  • When we do this, we can start to take in the things we have done, or the things that have been ok. Perfectionism is like teflon. Anything other than the rigid idea in our heads doesn’t count so we find it hard to build up a solid sense of trust in our capability and worth. The practical translation of this looks like an intentional focusing on what we have done, what has gone ok, how we have coped. 
  • Mindfulness. Yes. Even though it’s prescribed for everything like a panacea for living, it’s incredibly effective for those of us who have trouble letting go and letting be. It’s more prophylactic than a here-and-now quick fix. Over time, it helps us to stay with things as they are, observe our impulses to change or fix things without acting, and build some sense of being ok without having to be in control. It also reduces the relentless self-criticism that our perfectionism uses to discipline us so ineffectively. 
  • And following on from mindfulness, cultivating a sense that this is not a dress rehearsal can really alleviate our desire to manicure things before we allow ourselves to engage. This really imperfect day, full of imperfect selves is all we have.