A Perfectionist’s Story of Practicing Emotional Intelligence
I am feeling anxious and excited. Sensations any perfectionist knows well…
My dear friend has just texted me, “let’s go to this new restaurant I’ve been hearing about when you visit!” I have not seen my friend in a long time and am very excited to spend time with her, but I am anxious about the spending. I am extremely frugal; I have traveled the world on a shoestring and can afford to live in a very expensive town because I have rock-bottom expenses. Being frugal has been a central component of my very good life. However, I am worried about being perceived as cheap by my friend. While I try to be more than self-sufficient and generous to those around me, I still feel pangs of anxiety around limiting my spending when it relates to other people.
So, as I think about how to respond to her well-meaning text, I am feeling anxious. I know she makes (and spends) much more than I do. I know, for her, splurging on an expensive dinner gives her joy. But if it gives me anxiety, should I speak up? Should I talk to her now about my budget? Will she judge me for not wanting to do the fun things she likes to do? I can feel the tension building inside my chest, my shallow breaths, the burning of potential shame on my back. I can hear the dialectical record player in my mind repeating, “I can’t spend too much money. I can’t be perceived as cheap.” And, over it all, I can hear a familiar and critical voice saying, “You literally get paid to write about emotional intelligence. Shouldn’t you have this figured out by now?”
Oh, another case of the “shoulds.”
The “shoulds” have governed a large chunk of my perfectionist life. Being a perfectionist is easy to spot on my Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence assessment results: my consequential thinking is sky-high compared to my engage intrinsic motivation. My high consequential thinking score means that I have spent a lot of my life looking ahead, weighing options, and becoming clear on who I want to be. My relatively low engagement of intrinsic motivation means I often look outside myself for signs of success. It’s a match made in perfectionist heaven: I want to be a more emotionally intelligent person, and my tendency is to measure my success based on how I am perceived by others.
Trying to nurture personal achievement by looking to others for signs of success is a bit like trying to change a lightbulb in my house by taking a walk around the block. I need to be in my house to change my lightbulb, and I need to be in my body to light up myself! If my goal is to have more self-compassion and intrinsic motivation, I am definitely not going to get there by judging my success based on my friend’s reaction.
I am relatively sure of who I want to be and how I want to get there, but I can be very hard on myself for not getting there overnight. Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. In a recent 17-year study of nearly 42,000 college students, researchers found that self-oriented perfectionism, socially-prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfection is increasing.
Across countries and genders, “recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.”
My practice of self-compassion is very young; it was born 6 months ago after attending Six Seconds’ Practitioner Certification. I used to think that the term “love yourself” was just a saying; I didn’t know what it really meant or how it felt. I have begun to understand that loving oneself is an actual thing people practice regularly. Though in its infancy, my self-compassion practice is rich and textured; I have visuals, meditations, and felt senses in my body dedicated to loving and supporting myself.
How does self-compassion show up for this perfectionist in our story of “to dine or not to dine?”
I am slowly, with the help of a few breaths, able to put down my phone and untangle myself from my thoughts just enough to invoke a feeling of self-compassion.
I look down at my phone– the open draft of my response to my friend stares back at me. My feelings of anxiety and fear cue to me that something is going to which I need to pay attention. I listen, and I hear perfectionism’s voice: “Shouldn’t you have figured this out by now? Why are you so stingy?” Time to practice. First, notice: My feelings of anxiety and fear cue to me that something is going on. Second, a pause. A few breaths. I am able to put down my phone and untangle myself from my thoughts just enough to invoke a breath of self-compassion.
I drop myself back into my feelings, but I do it mindfully this time. My self-compassion practice is to radically accept every emotion, thought, and sensation that makes itself known to me. Like a mother soothing a crying baby, I practice holding and nurturing these uncomfortable bits of myself without becoming personally entangled. I notice and allow the feelings of anxiety, fear and shame. I literally visualize holding these emotions in my arms, holding them close to me. I note exactly where they are felt in my body– tight, tingly chest, burning, sloping back. I imagine a bowl of acceptance at the bottom of my stomach, and I allow these sensations to be held by this bowl.
I notice as these sensations ease under the light of acceptance. I notice as my emotions begin to lift, being held by my greater, nurturing self.
As I welcome the acceptance that comes from within, I also begin to feel clear about how I should respond to my friend.
In a text that both honors my boundaries and shows my gratitude for her, I let her know that I am really excited to see her but that the restaurant is too expensive for me. I continue with my day, and, as I notice the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of unworthiness re-emerge, I come mindfully come back to them again and again. Over and over I practice accepting myself just as I am; I have performed these visualizations of self-compassion probably a thousand times, and I look forward to getting into the millions before I die.
I feel the deep satisfaction of being intrinsically motivated, of feeling excited to continue on this journey of practicing self-compassion and emotional intelligence. When practice is this personally rewarding, I find myself forgetting to care about perfection. And, ironically, my life feels far more perfect this way. Perhaps because I am learning what no perfectionist ever wants to admit: perfection is only achieved by falling perfectly in love with a practice that never ends.