Dr. Zan’s Thoughts:
As much as I value mindfulness, meditation, and being open to momentary experience as it emerges, I must confess that I still have a tendency to over-function in a variety of circumstances. When I teach about this notion in a mindfulness class, I refer to it as striving and present it in juxtaposition to being. And being in the now is the place where it all happens. Nobody wants to miss out on that!
Offering full disclosure here, my own striving can occur in both personal and professional settings; however, it is probably most observable and most annoying for 3 of the human beings i adore the most--my own children. If I reflect on the ways in which I over-function, I would have to admit that they reside soundly on the continuum of perfectionism--a trait that I have worked diligently to soften and release. After all, I know and believe that nothing in life can be perfect. Perfection is an illusion, objectively unattainable, and yet, if we just listen to the language we use in our culture, it remains an ever-present ideal by which we measure our actual experience and continually ping ourselves with subtle but ongoing reminders that our own experiences, accomplishments, and relationships don’t quite measure up. We try to make them look like they do, but in truth, perhaps only deep down inside, we know they do not.
I suspect I am not alone in having been raised to value hard work. This is a value that I hold dear and for which I am grateful to those who raised me. However, I sometimes justify my own striving that is based in perfectionism by naming it as “working hard” and “doing my best.” Once categorized as hard work and best effort, it’s absolutely untouchable.
Let me give you some examples of how over-functioning is not necessarily helpful in a parenting relationship. Trust me, I know because I have made all of these mistakes. I am grateful to my children for teaching me that when I can just relax a bit, our relationship will work out. So, please, try to learn from my mistakes, and avoid the following:
You might be over-functioning if you extend yourself way beyond your comfort (and preference) zone to engage in an activity with your child and then expect enthusiastic expressions of gratitude for your extension. Actually, in this case you might be more of a martyr than a fun companion, and nobody enjoys hanging out with a martyr.
You might be over-functioning if you jump to action the instant your child reveals upset about a relationship or a situation. They may simply need a safe space to vent, and your overly zealous response is more likely to silence than facilitate more conversation. You may actually spur anxiety rather than a sense of release and relief. When in doubt, just listen fully. Even if you don’t doubt, listen fully.
You might be over-functioning if you preach to your child about their responsibility to make maximum use their gifts, be they intellectual, athletic, or artistic. While you may believe this to be true, perhaps it would be more useful to guide them toward full engagement and enjoyment of their gifts. When they can embrace strengths, without feeling pressured about them, there will be space for them to take the responsible path. In the end, we can guide others, but it is always their journey.
I suspect it is not a stretch for you to apply these concepts to any important relationship in your life. A sad consequence of perfectionism at any point on the continuum is that it has the potential to rob any particular moment of being enough. This is true because your “perfectionist within” will tell you that no matter how fabulous this moment is, it could always be better. I feel ready to give that up. In truth, I know that it is and will be an ongoing process. But, for the sake of myself and all those I love, I’m staying with it.
Dr. Nadine’s Reflections:
The notion of perfectionism is a simple construct that most of us understand, but it’s so indescribably complex in the ways it shows up in our lives, and how we each make decisions related to it.
For years I’ve worked with patients whose lives are miserable because they won’t give up their ideal of perfection. They’re often afraid that, if they modify that unrealistic standard, they won’t be “good enough” and they’ll be a disappointment to themselves and to others. It’s this fundamental misunderstanding that is at the core of their unwillingness to let perfection go. It’s also the reason that they don’t live “in the moment”. They continue to strive and so miss out on the beauty and richness that the present moment can bring.
I’ll echo Dr. Zan’s admission of striving for perfection by over-functioning. I still find myself carrying concerns about doing a good-enough job. I think I’m better at not worrying about it than I used to be, and I know that I make better decisions about when and when not to relax my standards. But dare I say, I’m not perfect at figuring all that out, yet. (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the irony…)
I think we have to continue to discern what “good enough” means for each situation. Dr. Zan gave wonderful examples of what that can look like in our relationships. My Dear One and I have regular conversations about this as well. He’s a musician, and we talk about what good-enough means in his line of work. He doesn’t have the latitude to sing off-key and say, “Well, it was ‘good enough’.” And yet, he can recognize when his performance is magnificent (my word, not his; he’s very humble about his exceptionality), while still working continuously to assess, refine and improve.
So as you’re deciding about striving for something or being in the moment, as Dr. Zan describes, maybe these are some things to think about:
Perfection is not achievable. It’s an illusion. How much are you able to accept this notion?
What does good-enough mean in each unique situation you face?
Can you discern which circumstances call for striving and which call for being?
Can you relax your perfectionism in order to meet the actual requirements of your situations (not the requirements you imagine)?
Perfection is different as it relates to a task as compared to a relationship. What exactly does that mean for you and your loved ones?
How able are you to discern the differences between accomplishing a task and developing a relationship?