Do any of the following statements ring true for you?
- I should always be happy and upbeat.
- I should never feel depressed or anxious.
- I should be able to snap out of a “negative” state of mind.
Often we have an idealistic view of happy and successful people. We believe that such individuals constantly have a smile on their face, see only the best in life, and are never bothered by uncomfortable feelings.
Perpetually cheerful people can actually get on one’s nerves, as such individuals can sometimes seem artificial. We generally feel more at ease around people who express themselves in a manner appropriate to the situation and who can pick up on other people’s vibes.
Years ago I worked with a supervisor for whom I had tremendous respect. He demonstrated kindness, firmness, an excellent work ethic, an engaging sense of humor, and was just basically appealing. I looked forward to seeing him everyday. He both encouraged and terrified me, in that he demanded a lot of his staff but also made it clear that he believed in everyone’s ability to do what he asked of them.
When we ran into serious bureaucratic issues in our department, and he divulged to me that he felt (quite appropriately) anxious, he rose even higher in my estimation, and believe me, this is saying a lot. He revealed himself to be strong enough to handle uncomfortable feelings, rather than wall them off, and simultaneously deal with the situation at hand.
In other words, he demonstrated emotional flexibility, the healthy alternative to emotional perfectionism.
Emotionally healthy people have a wide range of feelings, which they embrace with compassion and patience. This usually translates to relating well to other people. This works both ways – when we’re empathic and allow ourselves to enter into another person’s emotional experience, such as sitting with a friend who’s lost a loved one and is grieving, we often become more tolerant of our own feelings.
Emotional perfectionism, on the other hand, is common among people who suffer from anxiety and depression, and does not work in our favor.
Reasons to let go of emotional perfectionism:
Our feelings give us important feedback. Have you ever had a gut instinct about a person or situation, dismissed your hunch, and later on down the line, when the relationship or job deteriorated, regretted that you ignored your intuition? Accepting and becoming curious about our uncomfortable feelings allows us to learn the lesson they contain. Sometimes the symptom is a signal.
Refusal to feel discomfort can lead us to avoid challenging situations. If we steer clear of anxiety, for instance, we may never take that leap, go on that first date, commit to marriage, take that trip to a foreign country, or go on that job interview. In fact, we can get ourselves in worse trouble, but falling into addictive behaviors in an attempt to avoid discomfort. Or we can stay in relationships or jobs that have outlived their usefulness, because we prefer familiarity to the temporary agitation we might feel if we made a change.
Excessive control of our emotions can result in emotional constipation. Becoming preoccupied with micromanaging our feelings and judging some as “bad” can get us into a state of emotional blockage or “blunting”, where we end up feeling not much of anything at all. Once we’re at this point, life can feel surreal and we can lose touch with our intuition. When we block out uncomfortable feelings such as grief or anger, we tend to block out pleasant emotions such as happiness as well. Being in an emotional straitjacket can be the result.
How to overcome emotional perfectionism:
Treat your feelings with kindness. The practice of mindfulness, which involves an awareness of our present reality without judgment, allows room for all emotions. The idea is to take on the role of a compassionate observer. You neither push your feelings away, nor do you become enmeshed in them. Instead of identifying with the emotion, you can say to yourself, “Sadness is here. What are you trying to tell me?” Experiment with asking your question on the in-breath, and listening for the answer on the out-breath. Again and again. Perhaps nothing will come to you, and that’s okay. The point is to be present and accepting of your full palette of emotions.
Find safe people with whom to share your feelings. This is not a license to vent at length without moving on to an action (or acceptance) plan, as people are not to be “vomited” on (yes, another digestive system analogy). However, being heard and validated by others is powerfully healing. Find people who can handle receiving your feelings. Not all people are willing, for various reasons. Some people aren’t at a place of acceptance with their own emotions and may criticize or withdraw from you. Be selective.
Allow your feelings to sneak in the back door. Sometimes we can become so stressed that intellectualizing and living in our heads becomes the norm. It can be really disconcerting to realize that we’re not able to cry even if we want to, for instance. We want to thaw out but don’t know how. Try a yoga class, getting a massage, watching a movie, or listening to music that at one time was meaningful to you. Play with a kitten or puppy. Let your guard down.
Repeat a comforting phrase to yourself, such as:
- Let go.
- It’s okay.
- This too shall pass.
- I can handle this.
- It’s okay to feel.
- This feeling won’t kill me.
- May I be kind to myself in this moment.
Strive for emotional tolerance and breadth rather than perfection. We are here to experience life fully – and that includes our feelings.