The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 14. Walking the Tight Rope: Perfectionism Myths
“Perfectionism is just a way of trying to avoid shame and criticism.” ~ Brené Brown
Most are familiar with images of trapeze artists balancing on a tight rope at the circus, high above the mesmerized audience. One slight faltering movement and they could come crashing down to the ground. Or, perhaps we have seen harrowing videos of slackliners walking on a thin-wired rope stretching across vast canyons, thousands of feet above the ground.
Your hands begin to sweat as you watch. You hold your breath as they steadily inch along the rope in these gravity-defying acts. Your chest tightens, breath swelling like a balloon that could burst at any moment. Your breath is restricted as you sip barely noticeable pockets of air.
We can learn a lot about our quality of living and vitality when we look to the quality of our breath. Our breathing patterns have a corresponding physiology. What happens in moments of fear or intense stress? Physiologically speaking, the breath is restricted to the chest, heart rate increases, and the blood begins to draw into the core to prepare to flee, fight, or freeze.
This is the nervous system’s hard-wired response to keep us safe when we encounter fearful and dangerous situations. Our nervous system cannot differentiate between a real threat and one coming solely from our own minds. The two are interconnected. It is a part of our primal limbic system, rooted in prehistoric caveman times, when physical survival was a daily reality.
Emotions, as well as the cognitive mind, have evolved from this more basic-level primal response. This basic primal response is an integral part of our psychological and physiological patterning. We have primal survival instincts that haven’t fully adapted to the stressors of modern-day living.
Nowadays, stress is not always from a physical source or threat, unless we find ourselves in unsafe situations (e.g. abuse, violence, rape, or places where violence and genocide are more rampant).
Quite often, in our fast-paced, capitalistic, consumer-oriented western society, the source of stress in our lives stems from the mental and emotional sources, causing us to feel a chronic, intangible, looming fear.
Those who are endowed with a more anxious temperament (from trauma or early life experience) lean toward the camp of “shallow-breathers.” Breathing into the chest (instead of deep into the belly and diaphragm) becomes a “natural,” learned response to fear and stress that becomes automatic. There is hardly enough time or conscious thought to interrupt this pattern. The mind makes it even more of an uphill battle, resisting the feeling of discomfort and trying to deny its existence.
You can’t always so easily tell yourself to relax when your nervous system is activated. Thoughts can rarely address and calm the physiological response of the nervous system. The mind is hijacked, and we feel unable to walk or talk ourselves off the edge of totally losing control.
Here is where the power of the breath comes in. Yogis teach that the breath is the portal back to presence and the feeling of safety in our bodies. Breathing calmly can reengage the parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging the relaxation response to kick in. Through trauma, the breathing pattern gets interrupted and the nervous system responses of fight, flee, or freeze kicks in.
We can to begin to rewire the nervous system back into a feeling of safety again and regulation by returning to the breath. When relaxed, the breath is deep, full, and smooth. When we engage this quality of breath, the body and mind can relax, which sends a message of safety to the nervous system. Breath is the entry (or reentry) point.
Most have been taught that if stress is in the mind, it needs to be addressed from the mind. But we have forgotten the biggest piece of the puzzle: the nervous system.
From a yoga and craniosacral (a method of bodywork that aims to address underlying nervous system tension) perspective, the nervous system is the goldmine through which we understand and address trauma and also initiate healing. The nervous system houses all of our memories—both conscious and subconscious.
I have developed a pattern of shallow breathing, especially in times of stress and fear. I can feel my chest tightening and my breath shortening. I feel myself begin to float out of my body in dissociating patterns.
It’s not easy to retrain this pattern, but it can be practiced, as can most things. We can intervene with conscious, mindful, present awareness breathing, just as one simple example of an intervention available for us to practice when we feel activated.
Trauma has many implications, especially on one’s breathing pattern. A “normal,” relaxed breathing pattern gets interrupted. A maladaptive one takes its place to physiologically protect against the experience itself. When we undergo an overwhelming or traumatizing experience, our physiology kicks into high gear, and we learn and develop certain means to protect ourselves from pain.
The mind and psyche try to “make sense” of the trauma. Perhaps, if we received the notion that our emotions were “too much” and therefore the reason for parental or peer rejection or ridicule, we may shrink ourselves to fit into a “safe” box. The box leaves little room for breathing freely and spaciously.
For many who struggle with an Eating Disorder (ED), perfectionism offers a much “needed” safety box. It’s like a glass box that at any moment could crash and break, though. The food and exercise rules are tightly ordered inside this box. The many rules ED perfectionists follow include how to eat, what to eat, who to be, what to say, what to not say, how much to exercise, and who to be. “If you could just be perfect,” the ED says, “you would be safe from pain, and you would be loved and accepted once and for all.”
It’s a conditional kind of love, of course. It’s the love we are born into, no matter how well-meaning our parents may have been. We learn how we need to act and who we need to be in order to be loved.
Most of us swallow our authentic self and feelings in order to do so, which lends itself to the creation of inner-based betrayal and destruction. Others act out in blazing rebellion against these societally imposed constraints and boxes, creating a more outwardly focused destructive pattern.
Perfectionism is a beast of self-destruction patterned on shallow breathing. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to plan, prepare, over-prepare, think, overthink, obsess, criticize, analyze, and strategize. It’s a right versus wrong mode of thinking and operating. It is bent on there being only one “right” choice in each moment. As humans (and souls), we have an infinite number of choices. In reality, choices only lead to an experience where we learn lessons and grow. There is no right or wrong choice.
For the majority of my life, I believed that there exists a “right” or “wrong” choice based on morals, values, and religious indoctrination. Many of us from religious backgrounds were told that God is supreme ruler and judge, and we are the recipients of that judgment and condemnation.
Every choice we make does have a consequence. Some choices are more in line with our truth and integrity, stemming from a place of kindness and love. Other choices may be rooted in fear, hatred, and greed.
Who hasn’t made a mistake before? And, what is a “mistake” but an opportunity to learn and grow? Perfectionism makes no room for error, faltering, or “wrong” choices. But, what if “wrong” choices were just choices? No matter what we choose, we always learn something.
Choice is an integral part of this human incarnation. When we remember that choices are not “good” or “bad,” we remove the judgment, and we can remember grace. I still have to remind myself that in any moment, there is no way to do it “wrong.” Each choice leads to a new pathway and experience. That is all. And, in making choices, we find our own personal truth and inner compass of integrity.
With a detached observer perspective of the self, we can separate ourselves from this learned behavior of perfectionism seeking. With perfection as our false sense of identity, we will struggle to be kind to the imperfect, learning human self.
We believe that we are inherently flawed, and we will never reach this illusory state of perfection no matter how hard we try. We believe we are the problem to be fixed, not a person to be loved. We believe that we are only worthy of receiving love if and when we are perfect. But we never arrive at this state of perfection.
Writer and author Sarah Wilson says this about perfectionism in her book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful:
“I convince myself that controlling my life and aiming for perfection will cocoon me from anxiety. But it only causes more of the dreaded thing. We all just need to back the fuck off.”
Perhaps, we need to back the “fuck off,” as she says, when we feel ourselves gripping, controlling, and desperately trying to be perfect. The perfectionism cycle is fueled by anxiety, which only culminates in more anxiety, not less.
Perfection’s only goal is to keep at bay shame and criticism. We believe if we can just be perfect enough, we will be safe from the possible rejection and judgment of others. But, even then, no matter what we do, we are still susceptible to judgment and rejection. We believe society’s perception of us is more accurate than deciding our worth for ourselves.
What does it mean to be perfect, anyways? It’s an ever-elusive state of future orientation bent on the self always postulating and needing to change or be different. It convinces us we will get “there” someday, but do we ever actually?
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.
Read part three of this series: Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival & the Body the Enemy.
Read part four of this series: The Real Toxin: The Harm of our Fat-Phobic Culture.
Read part five of this series: How Eating Disorders Feed on the Insecure Self.
Read part six of this series: What Sparked my Healing Journey from an Eating Disorder.
Read part seven of this series: The Dark Side of Religion: On Religious Trauma & Body Shame.
Read part eight of this series: When Lines Blur: Journey into the Heart of an Empath.
Read part nine of this series: Spiritual Bypassing Won’t Heal You—but This Will.
Read part ten of this series: Shadow Work, the Unintegrated Ego & How to Reclaim our Wholeness.
Read part eleven of this series: The Seat of Addiction: Trauma, Emotions & the “I am not Enough” Club.
Read part twelve of this series: The Body Holds the Key: We Heal as we Feel.
Read part thirteen of this series: Reconnecting to the Divine Feminine Essence of Life.