“Perfectionism: Having an extreme need for external order to cover internal chaos.” -Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom
I love that definition of perfectionism because it highlights that suffering is the root of desire. That is, our internal chaos is the root of our need for external order. Or maybe Buddha is right and desire is the root of suffering. We’re all grappling with that elusive, deeper understanding of ourselves. Perfectionism is the crutch some of us–myself included–use to escape the internal chaos of being human. Perfectionism gives us an opportunity to feel the allusion of control by influencing and fixating on external circumstances.
Among obsessively making our bed each morning, arranging my yoga props just so, and drinking exactly 3 cups of tea before I can feel like my day has begun, I also have a habit of Googling graduate programs I’ll never complete. I also have a habit of applying to them. I even took the GRE and have asked 5 different friends and past colleagues for recommendation letters, a large favor to ask. I’ve applied to, been accepted to, and sometimes even enrolled in 3 different programs, ranging from psychology to business. Add to this the actual certifications I’ve completed in plant-based nutrition, diving, yoga, health coaching, real estate, cooking, positive psychology, and even bartending, and I begin to see a pattern. I crave external validity to mask ingrained internal insecurity. This is a form of perfectionism. Not a new insight, but a stark reminder of my conditioning.
And it’s not just accredited graduate programs I peruse. I look at tech certification programs, trade skills programs, professional workshops, retreats, yoga teacher trainings, and all kinds of structured educational opportunities that conclude in the award of some kind of official-sounding title, resume line, or bragging rights. One part of me loves to learn and grow, and the other part of me loves to prove it, even if only to myself. Some of those past qualifications I’ve turned into short-lived careers, but the majority fall into previous versions of myself I rarely revisit. I’m a jumble of paper.
Last weekend I did it again. I spent an hour sipping double-bagged chai tea from my favorite University of Utah mug while browsing Master’s degrees in Philosophy and Consciousness and copying the book lists to add to my Goodreads “to read” shelf. I always look for the programs that are online and just within financial feasibility. It heightens the possibility of the whole idea. Then I close the tabs, take a breath, and catch myself.
First of all, I can get this information for free by reading and taking Coursera courses, which I already do. But more importantly, I remind myself that I do not need a degree or external qualification to prove my worth, validate my voice, or guide my curiosity. I rarely consider another degree in philosophy or psychology or any other topic an actual strategic career move. I’m not talking about going back to school to advance my career or change fields (although pursuing the MBA, which I dropped after a few quarters, was 100% about that). I suspect my desire to seek an otherwise impractical qualification or degree points to a deeper insecurity or internal unmet need, a feeling I can sense within myself.
It occurs to me that it’s not a degree or certification or qualification I seek, but rather the feeling that I am enough, exactly as I am. As a woman conditioned in a society that celebrates masculinity–strength, success, money, power, accomplishment, more, better, pursuit, order, etc.– I find it difficult to internalize that I am enough. Any advertisement tells us we are not enough. Most magazines. Countless self-help articles and books. Even the very language we use to communicate. The message is clear: we are not enough. I consider this the essence of toxic masculinity and the chief reason behind why I feel the unquenchable thirst to constantly prove and improve myself, instead of embracing radical self-acceptance and self-love, from which change can occur without feeling as though it is needed in order to feel valued.
But we are enough, supposedly. I’m just having a really hard time truly realizing that in my full body and mind. I gravitate toward the masculine, reactive, black-and-white thinking of my learned human experience and feel very uncomfortable when forced to look within for answers. Never before have we had such instant access to information, opinions, and influence. Billboards, advertising, social media, news outlets, and our high-tech capitalist society in general all contribute toward our tendency to seek external voices to solve internal problems. Google is just easier than meditation, let’s be honest. So are seminars, classes, and books. Pausing to self-reflect is a learned habit, not often celebrated in our material, outward-facing society. I begin to see this more clearly when I just sit and listen to my body.
I’m reading Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, a 900-page tome of All Things Women. It spent the last year untouched on my bookshelf because I judged its cover (don’t judge me). But now I’m 200 pages in and on fire. It’s sparking something within me. Christiane asserts that “the mind can no longer be thought of as being confined to the brain or to the intellect; it exists in every cell of our bodies.” She stresses the mind-body connection and the power of unmet needs and psychological barriers to be the root cause of many of today’s health problems, as well as many of the psychological issues we face like not feeling “enough.”
In other words, our mind holds the sum (or perhaps greater than the sum?) of our human experience. This means our body is capable of relaying messages from our more subtle, subconscious selves. This is what “listen to your body” means: feel the physical sensations completely, and then feel the emotional sensations that arise as a result. We must ask ourselves, what is our body trying to tell us? How might what we feel within our physical bodies be related to what we’ve experienced emotionally, as well as how we process psychologically? It’s fascinating to consider the possibilities when we accept the mind-body-spirit connection.
Even if this is not empirically or otherwise “true,” I believe that simply believing this to be true can help open a pathway of greater understanding within ourselves. It’s actually backed by studies that mindset–and therefore, by extension, self-fulfilling prophecies–may be the keystone to good health. The placebo effect is crazy like that. That’s why I wholeheartedly believe that our bodies, minds, and spirits are intertwined and capable of relaying messages to us.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve allowed myself to explore this side of myself. I decided to more or less blindly accept that I can, in fact, change my reality by listening to my body and working with my conscious and subconscious minds. What if I could listen to my body and intuit the right decision? What if I could sit quietly and feel myself exist, and from that experience know where I need personal healing? Sounds kind of cool, especially because I am in a stressful time in my life. I think my current internal stress, catalyzed by my recent life changes, is the root of my desire to seek comfort and external control in the form of another degree or certification program.
Christiane is an M.D. who draws from multiple modalities and philosophies on healing to put forth her holistic approach to women’s health and wellness. What resonates with me about her work is that it considers the woman as a whole, with mind, body, and spirit inseparable and intrinsically linked. She says that our emotional and spiritual wounds of the past, including unavoidable societal and family conditioning, have direct results on our current state of health (or lack thereof). She also talks about the innate wisdom in each of us, pointing to the gut as a “second brain” that can intuit what we need.
When we act out of alignment with our true self–whatever that is for each of us–we cannot experience true harmony within our body. In chiropractic, it is believed that toxins (including nutrient-poor foods), trauma (breaking a bone, etc.), and stress (mental tension) are the root of all physical ailments. That is because our body stores the energy, tension, and stress that results from incongruent living. Our job is to listen to the subtle messages our bodies communicate.
I feel a reminder of this most when I finally make it back to my mat after taking too much time off yoga. I feel stiff, sore, unable to move and breathe fully. I don’t feel like the fullest or most authentic expression of myself. Something feels wrong and my body communicates that to me. When I eat too much sugar, processed food, or starchy carbohydrates, I also feel sluggish and slow. The mental fog and physical discomfort is my body telling me something. When I live with too much stress, feel consumed by negative thoughts, or obsess over that which I cannot control, my body responds to that too. My skin dries out, I get itchy, and my stomach is never quite settled. This is my body communicating with me.
Likewise, when I choose to use degrees and external qualifications to cover up my insecurity in being enough, my body will let me know that something is not quite right. I can feel it in my stomach, both before I start Googling and while I get overly excited about any one particular program. I don’t get a sense of inner knowing before I start searching and I don’t experience relief when I think about what it would mean to have one more accomplishment under my belt. Instead, I feel heavy with responsibility and “to-do’s.” I feel tight, wound up, ready to spring. My body tells me this is not what I really need.
It is interesting to see perfectionism manifest in various stages of my life, first as needing to do everything right and get good grades in school, and now as needing to control my life and feel validated. But I am enough. My body tries to tell me this all the time.
It’s funny how lessons like this present themselves multiple times throughout life. It’s like I never quite learn a lesson fully, but instead must be reintroduced to it, again and again, until my own internal monologue and subconscious beliefs about myself and about the world slowly shift. This is a process I need to accept. The Masculine energy in me wants instant transformation. Instant gratification. Instant order.
But right now I can feel that slow, steady shift. It feels as though I am on the brink of understanding what my body is telling me about my internal motives, drives, and unmet needs a little bit more. My mind just needs to catch up with what my body already knows.