(Dr. Norquist is on vacation this week. We are re-running a letter that was published earlier in this column.)
Dear Dr. Norquist:
I had a difficult childhood. As a child, my mother would never be satisfied with the way I did anything. She would always focus on any flaws she could find, and then tell me I couldn’t play with my friends until I did it perfectly (usually, this was a household chore). I’m not trying to make excuses, but I think my childhood is a big factor here.
The problem is, I am very hard on myself. It’s very important to me to do things well – perfectly if possible. Of course, I can’t always do that, so I struggle often with not feeling good about myself. I do my best at work, but sometimes I make a mistake. It’s especially terrible if my boss knows about it. I have trouble sleeping at night when this happens. Over and over I keep thinking about it. Then I can’t look my boss in the eye. She’s never given me a bad review, and in general I think she likes my work (I am an editor) – but I feel such shame about any mistakes I make that I’m often irritable.
I seem to work longer hours than my co-workers because I’m so concerned about not doing things perfectly. I realize this need for perfection is having a detrimental effect on my life, but I don’t know how to change. What can you suggest?
Dr. Norquist responds:
It is harder to feel compassion towards ourselves when we have not experienced ourselves as being treated with compassion. It’s also easy in this kind of a childhood situation to come to believe that your loveableness and your acceptableness is dependent on your performance, or n your case, on doing things perfectly. So, we need to look at both your head (i.e., your beliefs) and your heart (i.e., the ability to feel compassion) in making the necessary changes.
To experience compassion, your heart has to be open, and not defended. When there has been a lot of hurt, often we defend ourselves from our feelings by closing down our hearts. This protects us from experiencing the pain and hurt and suffering too acutely. However, it also creates a wall that separates us from both ourselves and others. It’s easy to be hurtful to others when we can’t experience (or even be aware of) their pain and suffering. Closing our hearts makes it impossible to empathize with both others and ourselves. Empathy is the precursor to compassion.
To open your heart, you need to be willing to experience pain and suffering. You cannot love without also being vulnerable to pain and sadness. It takes courage to allow your heart to be open. To heal, you need to make a decision here to embrace life, with all that it brings your way. To not do so is to choose to go through life in a manner that is “safe”, but isolated, deadened, and ultimately unfulfilling.
If you are willing to discover your courage, start by trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Can you feel the pain and anguish of a child who has just been scolded by her mother? What about a child whose feelings are ignored or a child who is afraid of a beating should she show too much excitement or express her needs too loudly? Can you put yourself in your own shoes as a child and experience the hurt and anger and isolation you might have felt? Let yourself feel this pain.
Now, treat this child with kindness. Let her know you understand her pain. Let her feel your love. If you do this exercise regularly, it will become easier for you to experience compassion toward yourself. Remind yourself regularly that your faults and imperfections, and even your perfection, are irrelevant when it come to your loveableness. Your loveableness exists regardless of anything you do. It exists in the same way that the sun and light go together. It’s part of your essence. One of my clients shared a quote with me that is appropriate here “God’s love for you cannot be earned”. If you remind yourself of this often, it will become a part of your belief system. Eventually, this can help you to let go of the shame and humiliation you feel whatever you make a “mistake”. Your life will also feel richer and more fulfilling, and you will feel closer with others. You can look forward to great side effects from working on this scar in your life.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2016 Chaitanya Counseling Services