“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”Brené Brown
The First “Inner Tug” I Ignored
My ego took a big hit in law school.
Even though I’d always done well educationally, the crowd was getting smaller as I went further into my studies. This was hard for me to accept because being smart in school was a big part of my identity, and it had been slowly slipping away.
So, when I got a letter in my first year of law school announcing that I had won the course prize in tax law, I was over the moon. I remember standing at the entrance to my condo in Toronto, staring in disbelief at the neatly typed letter… re-reading it several times to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood its contents. That letter represented “perfection” to me and the perfectionist part of me that was constantly striving to do more and be better finally felt like it had “arrived.”
For several weeks, I daydreamed about my future success at a prestigious Toronto tax law firm. I imagined myself walking confidently into one of those tall buildings on Bay Street, wearing a perfectly tailored black suit that I would have purchased as a gift for myself to celebrate… I would have a fabulous life, filled with interesting people, fascinating cases, and a corner office with a panoramic view of the Toronto skyline, of course.
But when it was time to register for the next semester’s courses, I couldn’t seem to bring myself to sign up for any tax law courses.
When I looked at the course descriptions, I kept thinking, “You’ll never get an A+ again. And if you fail, you’ll go back to being just average.” Then I would feel a wave of shame wash over me, which I would promptly bury deep inside.
I eventually convinced myself that I didn’t really want to study tax law because it would probably be boring down the line. A small, quiet part of me knew that I was fooling myself… but I ignored it because listening to it entailed doing some intense inner excavation work that I was not equipped for at the time. So, instead of taking courses in tax law (where there was a good chance that I could excel), I took courses in other areas where I was an average student, becoming the very thing that I feared the most.
That’s the funny thing about perfectionism… It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I did everything I could to avoid being imperfect because I wanted so desperately to excel at something. This kept me safe, but it also didn’t allow me to shine.
My Big Career Decision
A few years later, on one gorgeous autumn day, I was faced with the next big “inner-tug” that I would feel towards a career. I was fresh out of law school, working as a Policy Lawyer, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life… until that moment.
On my desk in front of me were several neat stacks of pamphlets. I had placed them there carefully after reviewing their contents and, most importantly, I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of them. They explained how conflict resolution could help separating couples solve their issues more effectively than going to court.
Before you go back to scrolling, let me also share that I hate conflict. The thought of having to be stern, pushy, or, even worse… aggressive… always filled me with dread.
I was so torn because, you see, following the “inner tug” to dig deeper into those pamphlets came with what felt like a monumental risk… and this terrified me. My career in the legal field was finally shaping up and I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing it all away. As much as I wanted to succeed in life, the perfectionist part of me wanted to avoid failing even more.
At the same time… I was deeply intrigued by them. I didn’t have a good template for how to deal with conflict well. So when I read about how this magical thing called “mediation” could help people talk things through and truly resolve issues, I was blown away. (Having worked in the field of mediation for many years now, I can tell you there is absolutely nothing magical about it… but that’s a story for another time.)
Out of curiosity, I Googled what it would be like to work in this area. Many of the best mediation firms in Toronto were run by successful lawyers who became mediators later on in their careers. They were older, smarter, and for the most part, didn’t look like me (a small brown-skinned woman). My excitement quickly deflated and the fear of failure returned in full force: “Nayla, you’re nowhere near as qualified as they are. You just aren’t one of them, and you never will be.”
But this time, I also heard another voice inside me. It was the part of me that knew that I was lying to myself when I said I didn’t want to take any more tax law classes… the part of me that loved learning for its own sake, not to get somewhere. This part of me was fascinated by those pamphlets on my desk and it was not prepared to let go so easily this time.
The Voice of My True Self
“I spent the first part of my life trying to be perfect, and I spent the second part learning to be whole.”Jane Fonda
The part of me that was feeling this “inner tug” so deeply was my true self. It was finally peeking out through all of the mental chatter and fear that typically clouded my big career decisions.
Having left the gruelling environment of law school, it had been growing stronger. I was no longer being judged exclusively on how I performed during those anxiety-provoking 100% final exams. And I was also no longer attending the wine and dine schmooze-fests with law firms, which were required to get a summer job on Bay Street. These types of activities would send my body immediately into flight or flight.
As an introverted, sensitive woman, I am hardwired to do my best in situations where I have space and time to think and where I can engage in deep one-on-one conversations. When I left law school, I started to have more of these types of experiences. So that part of me, the true me, had more room to breathe, explore, and expand.
On that beautiful autumn day in Toronto, my true self found the courage to find and claim its voice. It looked the perfectionist part of me deeply in the eyes and said unequivocally: “It doesn’t matter what ‘success’ is supposed to look like; we need to keep going because this makes Nayla happy and it’s helping her in ways you and I can’t even begin to understand.”
I could feel the perfectionist part of me soften its grip in that moment. It’s almost as if it was waiting for my true self to grab hold of the steering wheel so that it could finally step down from a role that it was never meant to take.
My body relaxed… my heartbeat slowed down. I didn’t care about making mistakes, failing, or appearing foolish anymore. I simply felt the joy of resting in the space of wonder when it came to taking a big, yet meaningful, risk in my career.
And that was the very first mediation that I ever conducted… between the different parts of myself.
The next day, I went to a bookstore and bought the first book that I would read on how to solve conflicts. It was a small step… but the inspiration it made me feel led to many other small steps. And if I hadn’t given myself permission to take that first tiny step, I would never have ended up working in a field that still lights me up to this day.
The Art of Following Your “Inner Tugs”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”Lao Tzu
It can be challenging to break free from perfectionism and start to listen to your true self’s “inner tugs.” However, this is exactly what you need to do if you want to pursue a career that is meaningful to you. Here are three practices that have helped me along my journey. I also encourage you to create your own practices because the ones that you come up with will be the most powerful for you.
(1) Check In With Your Body Regularly
When I felt the “inner tug” towards a career in conflict resolution, I didn’t yet understand how important it is to pay attention to the signals that your body is sending you. Your body is always pointing you in the direction of what’s true for you and there are some very simple ways that you can begin to pay more attention to it.
Take the time to check in with your body regularly. You can start to do this by simply making yourself more physically comfortable. When you’re heading into a meeting, bring a footstool or stand up instead of sitting down if this is what your body prefers. Leave the party when you start to get tired, not when you’re totally exhausted. Noticing what little things your body wants will help you start to notice the bigger ones.
(2) Pay Attention to Your Environment
I don’t regret attending law school, even if it was a gruelling experience. It taught me how to think in a way that I don’t believe I could have learned anywhere else and this has been incredibly useful in my career. What I do regret is the unnecessary suffering I experienced as a result being sucked into the dominant narrative of what a law student “should” be like in order to be successful. I didn’t know what I needed to be at my best and I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself if I had understood this more clearly.
Pay attention to the times when you’re at your best. What were you doing? What types of people were with you? What was your environment like? This will help you to notice when your environment may not be contributing to your success so that you can take action to readjust your mindset, your approach to things, or maybe even change environments if that’s what’s needed.
(3) Shift the Goalpost
One of the biggest things that helped me to break free from perfectionism was shifting my focus away from the end result to the process itself. When we focus on the end result of our big dreams, such as getting a promotion, switching to a new career, or going on any type of adventure, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. However, when we shift our focus to the journey itself, we feel excited, uplifted, and energized. Our true self is always eager to take on meaningful challenges that are just slightly out of our comfort zone.
So, when you feel a strong “inner tug” towards something that terrifies you, try letting go of the outcome and taking one tiny step in the direction of the “inner tug” that you’re feeling. It could be buying a book, signing up for a webinar, or even just talking to someone about their career. Give yourself permission to take this step without needing it to mean anything other than the fact that you are learning something new.
If this step is in the right direction for you, the next small step will materialize when you’re ready to take it.
I hope this story has helped you wonder about where perfectionism might be holding you back and how to pay more attention to your own “inner tugs”… because when you take the risk of doing what truly lights you up, we all learn from you. And I can’t think of a greater gift that you could give to this world.
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