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Be Perfectly Imperfect and Feel Great About It

Published in Natural Awakenings Magazine, November, 2006

By Francesca Starr, Ph.D.

We ask so much of ourselves these days. We want to achieve everything we can—enjoy good health, love and be loved, attain meaningful success in our professional lives, develop spiritually, serve the world, and please everyone. Have I left anything out? Our powerful drive to succeed, this insatiable appetite to realize everything of which we are capable is very important. These impulses are full of passion and express a true appreciation for life itself. But given all the pressures we feel simultaneously, is it a surprise that our nerves become frayed, some of our dreams crumble, and conflicts arise in our relationships—even within our own psyches?

We are capable of wonderful things, and each of us finds unique ways to take a big juicy bite out of life. But sometimes, perhaps often, we try too hard to do too much and then, when we fall short of our expectations, beat ourselves up for not being perfect. In response to these failures, we push harder, become physically and psychologically exhausted, judge ourselves even more harshly, and we feel disappointed, unworthy, and never good enough, yet again.

It is possible to spend more time in a peaceful mode, living and working consciously, and in greater balance. But before I explain how to get there, let’s explore the dynamics of the Inner Perfectionist, Inner Achiever, and Inner Pleaser, and the unrelenting pressure they can exert over our decisions and behavior.

It is likely that you, like my clients, go through life being somewhat aware of the aspects of your personality that are dominant, or primary, without realizing that there is much more under the surface and that for every part of your personality you know well, there is an opposite and equal part of you that can be discovered and consciously integrated in order to experience a more well-rounded and complete life.

After decades of research into the human personality, we know that the human personality contains many parts or sub-personalities. We know this instinctively and express it when we talk about the different “parts” of us, such as when we say, “Part of me wants to help my mother this weekend, but another part of me needs a long hike in the mountains.” Each inner self is born with a purpose, carries core beliefs, a world view, and its own agenda. All of the parts of us (that make up the whole of us) benefit from being seen and understood.

Not everyone has a dominant or primary Inner Perfectionist, a hard-driving Inner Achiever, or a highly developed Inner Pleaser. However, so many of us do that these selves are worth significant attention. I often discuss them as a group because they tend to work closely together as a sometimes-helpful and sometimes-harmful trio of power.

Let’s take the Perfectionist first, since this is the voice that places the high bar against which we measure ourselves in any and every situation. What are the current standards by which you are held to account in each area of your life? The voice of your Inner Perfectionist probably has very firm opinions about how you should be, what life should be like, and how you and others should behave. This voice points out every imperfection in an attempt to help you discern a better way—something that can be quite useful at times—but it can also reinforce your sense of inadequacy.

If we are so afraid of failure and of making mistakes that we disown the lessons to be found in imperfection, we completely cut ourselves off from the opportunity to inquire about the opposite of perfection self, often called, “permission to be human,” and see what potential is buried there.

The rich details of these explorations unfold differently for everyone, but here’s an example of how one client of mine faced the opposite of perfection, achieving, and pleasing. My client, I’ll call him William, grew up in a staunchly Catholic environment. He loved his parents very much and they had particularly strict, black-or-white ideas about how life should be lived and how things should look. To gain his parents’ approval, he developed a strong Inner Perfectionist self during his childhood. As he matured, the accomplishments and challenges of every decade of his life continued to strengthen and reinforce his Inner Perfectionist and he further disowned or repressed its opposite self or energy pattern. This potential self was suppressed into what Jung called the Shadow territory of the psyche.

When we worked with his Inner Perfectionist it went as far as to say, “Mistakes are my enemy!” When William made a mistake, he experienced huge anxiety and shame. He spent a great deal of time feeling hyper-vigilant, inflexible, and frightened about the possibility of not doing things right. William, terrified of failing to succeed at the level of perfection expected by his Inner Perfectionist, would often not begin a challenging project. He said, “Why begin if I’m going to end up feeling humiliated or like a failure and a disappointment to myself and everyone else anyway?”

If he did take the risk to try something new, here is how it might look:
Once William’s Inner Perfectionist set high standards and paid careful attention to quality, his Inner Achiever kicked in to organize and get things done exactly on schedule. His Inner Perfectionist and Achiever worked him hard, too hard, and when he wasn’t doing things well enough or fast enough, William’s Inner Pleaser came up as a default behavioral pattern to try to make things right with an abundance of false smiles and promises that only got him into more trouble later on, because he had promised beyond his capacity to deliver.

His need to please others was so great that he didn’t know what he wanted, needed, or felt. He was taking his cues from others and he carried the burden of feeling “like a fraud”, and of not feeling “good enough” as significant core wounds. The overactive trio of Perfectionist, Achiever, and Pleaser left William feeling shamed, exhausted, inauthentic, and gave him the nagging sense that he was failing, even when others would have found him to be pretty darn successful.

In striving to be perfect, we often focus so intently on not making mistakes that we become anxious and self-conscious—and make more mistakes as a result. In pushing too hard to achieve, the Pusher/Achiever pumps our adrenal glands way past empty and our bodies into states of fatigue such that we can generate too much of the wrong result in our lives. And in over-focusing on pleasing others, our energy leaves our sphere and is focused on and in others and we live out of touch with our authentic inner experience, our feelings, and what we want. We may know what is true for others – but we certainly do not know our own truth.

We need to be free to make a few mistakes (it is called a learning curve), to learn how to rest and be, and to get in touch with that still small voice within in order to reach higher goals and live a more joyful and fulfilling  life.

In our work together (during which we had fascinating dialogues with these inner selves) William was empowered to explore both the Primary and the Disowned Selves. Before we began, I explained the basic rules of Voice Dialogue: 1) All selves are to be respected and honored. 2) No self is asked to change its essential nature. 3) No self is to be eliminated. This made the Primary Selves (Perfectionist, Achiever, Pleaser) feel much better and safer.

The most important aspect of our work together was to help William develop a wiser, more detached Conductor that could respect and moderate both the primary and the opposite selves, simultaneously.

The voice that spoke up as the opposite of perfection quickly made it clear that it wasn’t going to ruin William’s life. All that part of him wanted was for him to relax and feel free enough to take calculated risks aimed at expanding and deepening William’s creativity and his life experience. The opposite of perfection simply wanted to be thought of as the “freedom to learn.” This disowned self said that as long as the Perfectionist was in control, William was fearful of taking creative risks and trying new directions in life. “If you have to do everything perfectly, why would you learn new paths? You can’t risk learning because no one learns new material or goes down ‘the road not taken’ without making mistakes. It is called a learning curve! I allow William to embark on a learning curve with excitement rather than fear.” What a relief it was for William to have an avenue within him that knew how to let go of the terrifying fear of imperfection, and to feel this newly discovered part of him as the vibrant energy of curiosity, confidence, and the desire to explore without the fear of making a mistake!

As we discovered more about these selves, we found that the opposite of the Achiever had a wonderful light sense of humor and suggested taking more down time to feel the peace of simply being. He discovered that within this space came sparks of insight and wisdom from higher levels of consciousness that heretofore had been unavailable to him.

The opposite of the Pleaser turned out not to be “selfish,” as William had feared, but “self-caring, self-referenced”, a wise boundary setter capable of saying no to others because (being focused within William) it actually knew when his boundaries were violated.

In our work together, William came to understand that the more he suppressed and disowned a part of him, and the more in-the-dark he was about his motivations, patterns, and old wounds, the more pressure he put on himself. Now he knows that he serves himself and the people he loves much better by having a more mature and complete understanding of himself, and his inner selves.

Using these techniques of self-awareness and empowerment, William has strengthened a conscious Conductor and its ability to intentionally dial up a nice dose of his Perfectionist and Achiever on those occasions when he faces an important deadline that must be met with work of the highest quality. As Conductor, he also skillfully dialogues with the part of him that needs to schedule down time after the work is finished, so he can rejuvenate and honor his need for rest and quiet. The conscious Conductor literally brings up the “freedom to learn” self and, therefore is free to make mistakes in situations that require that flexibility. These fine adjustments have generated better and more creative work and have helped William establish a balanced lifestyle that supports him in achieving the full range of his life goals.

You can spend more time in the Conductor that transcends the push and pull of the extremes of your personality. You can learn how to consciously moderate and spend more time in the full spectrum of possibility that lies in between the extreme polar opposite selves. The gift of working with the Voice Dialogue method and the Complete Life Process is that you transcend the old habits and patterns that seemed to serve you at one point, but that now are unintentionally, but significantly limiting. This brings your life up to current time and empowers your quantum growth.

The songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen has given us a simple phrase that honors both the act of striving and also of letting go of perfection, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.Our collective and individual challenge is to take joy in ringing the bells, to continue to make our offerings even though they are not perfect, and to accept and love the cracks that let the light in.

Francesca Starr, Ph.D., CPC
Certified Professional Coach, Post Graduate Voice Dialogue Training with Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone (Creators of Voice Dialogue), Ph.D. Counseling Psychology, MA Transpersonal Psychology, MA Education. Francesca brings finely honed skills and knowledge from previous careers (1. education, 2. business, and 3. counseling) to her passion as a Voice Dialogue Coach and Trainer. Gentle conversations with your Inner Selves that transform your life. Inspired, breakthrough coaching to resolve life and work issues, generate conscious choice and creative action, and evolve consciousness.