Addiction is the unquenchable desire for more, more, more. Perfectionism is an addiction to achievement. It’s an addiction to the drug-free high associated with a gold star, words of praise, or the intrinsic pride of job well done. It is an addiction to being better—better than expectations, better than your peers, or simply better than you were yesterday. It is an addiction to control.
Striving to live up to your ideals is indisputably honorable. Through yoga, we attain deeper and broader states consciousness, and with genuine practice, we inevitably become increasingly personally, socially, and ecologically responsible. The problem with the addiction of perfectionism is that no level of excellence will ever be enough . Also, attempts to be perfect in all arenas inevitably end in feelings of failure, because the universe is simply not organized such that we can have everything at once : there are trade-offs. Eating as clean as humanly possible elicits psychological stress, prioritizing a healthy amount of sleep means we forfeit aspects of a healthy social life, and rigorous focus on physical alignment in yoga means we don’t have as much time for the spiritual side of the practice.
It is important to acknowledge that, at one time most of our psychological quirks served us in some way. That’s why they exist . For many, being a type-A control freak is a comforting defense mechanism. Those who sustain loss, change, or trauma that leaves them feeling completely powerless find solace in meticulously controlling the parts of their life that they still can . In the acute stages of grief sometimes we need defense mechanisms to cope. But, as with many other psychological traits, perfectionism tends to stick around much longer than it is useful to us . Some even cling to it so tightly that it become a part of our identity.
Many yoga teachers explain that yoga never gets boring because the work is never done: there is always more to learn. This statement is true and well-meaning, but for perfectionists it can turn yoga into a practice that feeds their addiction rather than healing them from it. Continually improving physical alignment, breath quality, and focus in meditation gives us the perception of control. The uncomfortable truth is that control is an illusion . Indulging in the illusion of control reinforces the qualities of our superficial ego and blocks us from discovering who we truly are underneath the ephemeral labels with which we align. To make room for self-realization, we must let go of trying to better ourselves for long enough to simply observe who we are .
The problem with deep-seated traits like perfectionism is that you can’t simply turn them off. Attempting to do so often has a yo-yo effect: we indulge temporarily in complete surrender and then rebound back to tighter control than ever—some of us live life constantly bouncing from extreme to extreme. Living on the edge may give us short-lived highs and moments of joy, but long-term, sustainable contentment is only found in moderation. Therein lies the secret to overcoming perfectionism: recognition that the the perfect life is not gasping at extreme ideals, it is a life of moderation. So, keep your perfectionistic tendencies for now, but redefine the ideal you are reaching for: strive for balance.
This is not self-delusioning mental gymnastics; it is reality. It is well known that the healthiest people are not the ones that follow every nutritional recommendation to a tee; they are the ones who are health-conscious, but leave wiggle room for indulgence. Moderation is perfection. Holistically healthy people are okay with missing their regular yoga practice sometimes; it doesn’t send them into a self-destructive cycle of guilt. Moderation is perfection. We are human, and sometimes we run late, forget commitments, or trip and fall. Flooding the body with toxic stress hormones over these things is not perfection. Moderation is perfection. Having to make the occasional apology or repair something you broke is a sign you’re doing something right .
Being a perfectionist about moderation is not the endpoint; it is the beginning of the journey . Redirecting perfectionism to cultivate life of moderation allows us to break the cycle of addiction and experience The Middle Way for ourselves. As we experience the benefits of a moderate lifestyle, our perfectionism slowly begins to soften until finally we naturally practice everything in moderation... including moderation itself (You may meditate on this koan as part of the practice). Throughout a life of experiencing extremes, and balance, and everything in between, we recognize that there is no rule that applies in all instances. No personality trait protects us and serves us all the time, so clinging tightly to the labels that form our identity is inevitably the source of suffering. The best tools we have are the present moment awareness to evaluate each circumstance consciously, the wisdom and intuition to inform our actions or non-actions, and the courage to own our choices .
Written by Barbie Levasseur , Bay Area writer, yoga teacher, and mom.