For me, the tension between authenticity and perfectionism has never been more clear. This blog post includes excerpts from a conversation with my therapist and my personal insights on the subject.
If you self-identify as a perfectionist, struggle with self-esteem, read voraciously about personal development, strive to be happier, work hard to be better and feel unfulfilled, exhausted, empty or all of the above… This post is for you.
Earlier this week, in therapy…
‘It’s as if the second you try to be authentic, you lose all sense of the effortless upon which genuine authenticity hinges: being.’
My therapist said this to me following some point I had made about the importance of intentionality for me — of working through the logic and processes and justifications in my head before taking action — so that I could I know as I’m doing or saying something, precisely why I’m doing or saying it. I explained to her that that is *how I know* whether I am growing. Learning. Improving. Bettering myself.
In almost the same breath, I acknowledged that it can also leave me feeling a little contrived. A little fake. In certain contexts, calculated, disingenuous, gross. Not me.
‘The flip side of this,’ I told her, ‘is that if I say or do something that just naturally, instinctually feels like the right thing to say or do, it’s somehow discounted, less than because my brain didn’t have to do anything to end up there. It was easy. Effortless. And how could growth or progress ever be effortless?”
I asked whether she understood what I was saying and she hesitated. Not because she didn’t understand but, very probably, because she fundamentally disagreed with my philosophy (she’s good at keeping things professional though!). That’s when she brought up the point about authenticity:
‘To be authentic is be yourself, instinctually, from your gut, without planning and precision. Because the second you let yourself go there, well… it no longer feels quite as true. Quite as… real.‘
I thought back to a session we had two months ago. At the time, I had asked whether she would mind if I recorded our sessions because all of the frantic note taking I was doing immediately afterward was becoming really stressful. I was afraid I was forgetting things, misremembering the flow of conversations, missing the key insights. I explained that recorded sessions would help relieve some of the pressure I was feeling. She smiled in a way that suddenly made me feel very self-conscious about my post-therapy ritual [obsession].
We started our next session with a discussion about the need I felt to remember every detail our time together. I said it had something to do with ‘not trusting myself to remember’ and, therefore, the fear that I ‘would never get better’. She countered with something about the body’s innate intelligence and our ability to absorb what we need even if it’s just subconsciously. I clenched my jaw and nodded my head, eyes closed in agreement to obscure the fact that I had simultaneously nearly snorted and rolled my eyes. She encouraged me to take a break from panicked note-taking and observe how it felt to end sessions in relative calm.
I have had three undocumented sessions since then and it still makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable to conclude the hour without tangible evidence that I was indeed mentally present and, more importantly, learning something.
The Tension Between Authenticity and Perfectionism
The part of my brain that requires rigorous notes as proof of comprehension is the same part that believes that the only way to truly demonstrate knowledge and growth, is to do the mental calculus required to do or say the right thing with intentionality (before saying or doing said thing), whilst simultaneously quashing any and all outward appearance of trying too hard (no one likes a know-it-all!).
The ‘evidence’ of progress happens behind the scenes — it’s in the work, in the effort. It’s in the mental and physical energy expended to seamlessly put into practice various tools and coping mechanisms and learnings. And the sum of that energy less the number of times I slip up is how I measure progress. It’s how I determine growth. It’s how I define success. It’s how I derive happiness.
By these standards, I am deemed ‘successful’ when I am most calculated and ‘happiest’ when I am most controlled.
Am I a human or a robot?!
Where is the room for gut feeling? Where is the space for intuition and innate wisdom? More importantly, where is the freedom to simply be?
You can see why my therapist politely disagreed with me.
My philosophy leaves no space for the raw, unfiltered, artless qualities of genuine authenticity. It presupposes that even just being can be studied, improved, perfected. And it determines the measure of one’s goodness and value by how thoroughly and tirelessly they seek to be better.
It is an exhausting and perpetually disappointing way to live: the work is never good enough and the job is never done. There is always room for improvement.
The paradox of perfectionism, is that its pursuit does not lead to a fuller, more rich and rewarding existence. It simply eats away at your innate wisdom and truth, creates emptiness and reduces you to a project without a timeline.
Through our sessions I have learned that the common denominator is self-esteem. To ‘trust in my innate wisdom’ is simply to believe in the purest form of myself. And it’s in the moments, when I can find the courage and strength required to just be, that I feel happiest, most at peace, most Me.
There will be more to come on authenticity, perfectionism and self-esteem in following weeks as I learn more and continue to do the work. As always, I plan to share it all here with you.
In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or questions, please let me know — I’m always curious to hear from people and talk all things therapy and personal development. I would also love to know whether you feel authenticity and perfectionism hold a similar tension in your life.