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Lost in pursuit of perfection

Goals with wall of ivy behind it. Image by Utsman Media.

Shifting goalposts

Those of us unfortunately familiar with forms of psychological abuse are likely also familiar with the device of shifting goalposts where you can never speak or act in such a way as to meet the standards required to avoid retribution, rebuke, or violence (verbal, physical, or otherwise) because every time you are close to reaching the bar, it is moved. “Good enough” for them is redefined to remain ever unattainable by you. It becomes a mechanism for survival to learn every condition that must be met and every nuance that shapes the meeting of those conditions. Even if success is never achievable, it becomes a mysterious recipe you follow with extreme diligence in hopes of minimising how often you will suffer or how significantly you might be harmed.

Brass measuring instruments around a blank recipe book. Image by Kara Eads.

It’s a phenomenon that is experienced more commonly by more people than we are comfortable admitting, just as we are uncomfortable admitting how much relational unhealthiness pervades society these days. It colours professional and domestic spheres. For me, it has come to colour how I relate to myself. I am striving for perfection constantly and whilst this can be motivating, it can also lurch into unhealthiness. I frame it as my manifestation of Taoism, the pursuit of learning and development in walking my path. However, I am increasingly conscious that there is a spectrum of this where it veers away from growth towards self-paralysis. When I am in balance, my potential for progress and action embeds a comfortably manageable drive for doing my best and iterative improvement. (This is particularly useful as a writer because editing feels like a welcome chance to improve upon my work rather than an onerous chore.) I am diligent in what I do and I am actively curious. However, seeking to learn is distinct to seeking to be perfect. I walk a tightrope of balance between these two and it is notably important for me to spot the difference.

When I feel myself procrastinating, hesitating, holding back, I am cultivating the art of questioning myself why. Sometimes, and necessarily, the hesitation is seeded from another habit that I am striving to address which is a lack of active self-care where I prioritise the comforts and needs of others above and at the expense of my own. If this is the case, procrastination can manifest in a bizarrely passive-aggressive exhausted cry from my own body desperate for me to attend to my unmet needs before I can dive into a project. 

Specifically, there is a form of procrastination that is about perfection though. The more I am reluctant to start upon a project, because I fear I won’t be perfect enough for it or my participation will not be perfect enough, the more I can see in that hesitation the voices of others manifested. It is the shifting goalposts of those who resolutely wished to find fault in me and my actions so that they could punish, withhold, or “win” over me. If I lean into listening to these terrible whispers though, I realise they sound like a mimicry of me but in truth it is never my own voice that is throwing words of potential failure and ineptitude like weights upon my shoulders. They are the voices of others and I am learning to deny them their power. They have no right to clothe me in their words of doubts, fears, and false shadows. 

Shifting out of paralysis

I must get on with it. Each moment I paralyse myself with others’ voices undermining demands for perfection, which I know to be unattainable, is another moment wasted and another opportunity to learn that I am not seizing. I will not punish myself for needing however long I need to get through this latest paralysis, because this too was a learning opportunity. The paralysis I overcame represented an opportunity to practice getting better at moving beyond those old patterns. However, I will celebrate each time I do move through the inertia of self-doubt and embrace movement again, in spite of the voices of doubt and threatened punishment that had become the soundtrack to so much of my life. But I have other sounds in my life that I can tune into, sounds of evidence, sounds of encouragement, sounds of the love of friends and chosen family, and the sounds of perseverance and resilience.

Now what?

I was confronted with this as I recently recognised a familiar pause stretching into the shape of fear hiding under the cloak of procrastination that found me delaying on commencing my thesis. This is my public commitment that I am writing two non-fiction books. (I’ve been encouraged to consider a PhD but that seems like an entirely different adventure to consider for another time.) Each will take as long as they need to and be of the length that is appropriate for the work that comes out of the research, interviews, and reflections, but I will no longer hold myself away from the projects for fear of not being good enough to do it. I am still learning and that is the best I can commit. 

I will be writing my thesis and other book about family and domestic violence as a human rights issue. With better insight and understanding of the risks of vicarious trauma and re-traumatisation, I acknowledge it will not be an easy project but I believe in its value and it is a commitment I make to those who came before me and those who come after me in this field. We all deserve a life free of intimate relationship violence and the ways in which it holds us. 

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