On Perfectionism

An essay by Nadia Banna, for the lying down practice of the Alexander Technique. 

I’ve been thinking about perfectionism and end gaining [end gaining means simply going for the end result instead of paying attention to the process]. They go hand in hand! While I was learning tango, I noticed it. Well, actually, my teacher pointed it out to me, I was too busy end gaining to notice it myself. What was interesting, though, was that I wasn’t end gaining so obviously. I was end gaining in the sense of applying the thinking required to improve my technique too strongly. My teacher said, “You took what I said and applied it 100%. That’s too much.” I think this way of applying thought too strongly is a subtle way in which many of us end gain our directions.

To allow the thought to permeate the mind and body is a way I like to reframe what our role is. When I end gain my directions, it’s the insistence with which I send the thought that strikes me as end gaining. Once we have decided to send a message for release, we have taken a step in the right direction, but I think we can also allow room for other alternate or additional messages of release. So just notice your thinking now. As you ask for the neck muscles to release, and your weight to be supported by the ground or table, and for the spine to lengthen, and the limbs to release away from the torso, are you forcing the thought on yourself? Are you allowing room for alternate thoughts to arise from the first direction, the first path you went down, or are you pushing the thought all the way through to the end goal? Another way I like to think of the thoughts is that you are following them like a river flows down its path; you are not determining the direction or even the speed of them, you just send the thought and then time and space create the process and carry it through for you.

I actually happened upon a small article [“New Year, New You: When ‘Good Enough’ Is Perfect” by Elizabeth Lombardo] about perfectionism yesterday in the publication Natural Awakenings as I was thinking about this topic. There was a line that said “Perfectionism feeds on an all-or-nothing approach [by] following rigid self-imposed rules…” And so we can apply this to our directions and our release. Can our desire and intention for release be enough? Can we allow our bodies to respond as they are able, as they have space and permeability to do so? Can we let go of any self-imposed rules as to how a lie down should go?

In fact, perfectionism itself is a learned behavior, the author points out, as we know, so we can choose to let it go. We can decide that perfectionism is a static place that we don’t want to dwell in anymore. Instead we can allow our breath, our thought, the time we give ourselves, to be enough, and to be the lively things that move us. Reaching for perfectionism leaves us rigid and stuck, because it’s an essentially unattainable state, in that if you did reach it, it would always be temporary.

So as you’re lying there, allow the breath to enter the lower torso, release the hips, the outer line of the knees to the inner line of the foot. Give the spine time to uncurl from any compression and pushing back or pulling forward. Your intention to be in a space of malleability will help it find its length. Notice any thoughts that are urging you to do more to strengthen the direction, and trust that your simple sending of it is enough. And if you’re noticing other thoughts or changes in your body as you send these messages, then you’re entering into the space of progress, or liveliness. Welcome the additional thoughts and changes as a reminder that we don’t have to be linear and insist upon a singular message. Instead we can exist in all of our dimensions, layers, levels, consciousnessess of muscle, tissue, brain, body, emotion, feeling.  Even if the response is tightening, or trying to force something, or no response at all, consider that you are aware of whatever your response is. I loved one of the slogans in the article: “It’s not failure, it’s data.” To have this data creates an interaction, a springing backwards and forwards that can create momentum to ultimately move in the direction we wish. I think that’s why we sometimes force a message of direction – because we are unsure of where we’re headed, or how we will move forward. Instead of forcing it, see if you can pause, and let the data come to you.

Our breathing, especially, is a good time to work with the ideal of perfectionism. Notice that each breath can be a release of perfectionism – because each breath is necessarily unique, different. Perfectionism would mean the same breath each time.

 What is your version of perfectionism? Each person’s interaction with perfectionism is different. Notice what standards you hold yourself to. How does perfectionism hold you back from feeling, responding and being?

 In fact, our bodies are constantly eschewing perfectionism by changing, growing and transforming. I was riveted by the two climbers who are embarking on a free climb of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. Their story is fascinating, and one of the most incredible details emerged from the news coverage. As they held onto these razor sharp ledges in some of the pitches, they tore the skin on their fingers. They had to pause and take rest days to grow new skin. This struck me as a true example of our bodies desire to adapt, not to be perfect. The acceptance of transformation, and the time it takes, allowed the climbers to continue and ultimately scale the whole wall.

 Embrace that incredible ability we have to eschew perfectionism and follow something far more epic. Release perfectionism.