“I don’t know if you have ever observed this strange thing, the self. Often the more you look the more it doesn’t seem to be like it, and the more you look the more it isn’t it.”

–--Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

Self-Control, Self-Confrontation and…Self-Conflict

It is no surprise that devoted, self-disciplined, perfectionistic people — people with high ideals and addicted to their expectations for self-improvement — can be so cruel to themselves.

We bright achievers, people who feel it is our obligation to know ourselves and confront our faults, may find ourselves in particularly challenging leadership roles only to then quickly come face to face with the self-perceived boundaries of our capabilities … and our own confidence. We wonder what’s wrong that we cannot instantly break through these barriers to further accomplishment. What do we need to know? How do we reach the next rung of self-discipline? How can we motivate ourselves to work even harder, sleep less, accomplish more, be more creative, become everything we can be? In essence, we perfectionists live in a particularly ambitious cycle of self-control, self-confrontation and self-conflict.

Many organizations love people like us, because all that is needed is to suggest we need to work a little harder or to find something that is not quite complete. “You got it 95% of the way there” is heard as “this is barely acceptable.” Such things lead us over-achievers inevitably to sacrifice more and more of our lives for the work and for the corporation.

Meadow

This is not an easy problem to address because of a fundamental fear of losing our identities if we forego this process of inner analysis, critique and conflict. It is ironic, because this very process stands in the way of the meaningful changes we might legitimately be seeking. It’s the old story of “the lashings will stop when morale improves” applied to our inner life to become “the lashings will stop when self-esteem improves.” Except it never does. As a client once said to me, “If I allow myself any pride at all, it’s just a prelude to a fall, so it’s lose-lose. I either feel guilt and fear now and let that drive me or I’m setting myself up to feel even worse guilt and fear later.” Under such conditions, accomplishment will never be enough. In effect, it’s a mostly brutal form of backward narcissism used as a success formula: “Self-criticism is the way I get ahead.”

By the way, I’ve rarely met such a person, driven in the way I’ve just described, who did not also have some fairly critical judgments of others. It is tempting to trace the problem of cruel treatment of others back to its origin in the cruel treatment internally a leader is receiving from you know who. I suppose this is one of the reasons why self-compassion, not just compassion for others is widely circulated as a solution.

However, telling a drunk to stop drinking often has little effect, except if the drunk seriously takes exception (as perfectionists would do), which then generates an argument — and more drinking.

“Oh, I’m perfectionistic! I shouldn’t be! How can I improve!” just leads to even more perfectionism driven by yet another layer of self-doubt.

What’s the greater solution, then? How do we get these combatants to stop fighting each other — the combatants being “who I believe I really am” vs. “who I think I should be.” That’s the trick — to stop the fight, or back out of it, or just put it on hold. Because the whole process of analysis, critique and self-demand is based on a form of inner violence and the fear that assumes there is literally nothing beyond that war, no person beyond that ego-identification except a slothful, inept, depressed and mistake-prone slob, nothing that supersedes this position of low love and love trust for the being within — where all that fighting is happening.

I guess this is one of the reasons why at a certain point the word, “spiritual,” comes forward, because all the learning about psychology and neuroscience in the world is not necessarily enough. Oh, we are bound to learn more in those areas as time goes by, and that’s fine, but we don’t actually have to wait for the discoveries in order to be happier.

If… If it is possible to see once and for all that what’s going on is a form of self-violence in which we don’t actually have to take part. It’s like a man I met in a bar many years ago who was just retired from literally fifty years of employment in the same big government agency. He told me the story of ascending to a high rank as a manager and I asked him what had been the central thing he had learned from all that time in place. He thought for a moment and tipped his drink to me: “You don’t have to participate in every argument you are invited to.”

Just so, we may be invited to the cycle of self criticism and achievement, to ongoing deep and destructive arguments with ourselves, but we can step back. That, I suggest, is truly possible — in an instant. All that’s needed is to see that the pain we are feeling is truly self-imposed, that we can stop an unholy aggression within ourselves when we are ready to do so — which means when we’ve finally had enough of pain and suffering, and are willing to take the risk to no longer make that suffering a central premise of what we’ve called success. I say this is spiritual because that’s how I experience it — as something redemptive, an experience of personal wholeness without any particular religious meaning attached.

It’s more than being an observer of self. It’s realizing some part of a larger Self. With the fighting stopped, something else enters and I follow a path I hadn’t seen before. I suspect it is a very natural track, like the ones formed by deer in meadows high up in the mountains. It pre-exists and is present beyond or beside what is human. It can’t be reasoned out.

Once you leave the conflict, it’s there for you to follow if you choose.

MeadowFlower

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10 Comments

  • Dan,
    Thanks so much for the timely post. Was just thinking of you recently and realized I had somehow lost track of your wonderful newsletters. I have always loved your writing, and thoughts on being a complete person. I am happy to be reading you again.

    Regards

  • Thank you, Margaret! I have not been writing as many Newsletters as in the past, but I will try to get one out before the end of the year. Thank you so much for dropping by!

    Best
    Dan

  • Well said, Margaret. Welcome back Dan. You nailed the cycle of perfectionism. Here’s to stepping off that train and into the moment.

  • Many thanks, Blair! Always a pleasure to find your presence here!

    Best
    Dan

  • Always helpful to read your insights.

    I’ve been engaged in a deep personal excavation and re-examination project for several weeks now about something that happened many years ago. I am experiencing an internal fight – involving self-doubt, self-criticism and projections on to others – but it is interleaved with more self-compassion during this current dig.

    I think the internal fight can be productive, for a while. I believe self-doubt serves me well because if I was always self-sure, I would not be open to seeing things differently, and I believe self-criticism serves me well by opening me up to doing things differently. The key question – which your post helps me recognize – is when to stop, or at least suspend, the fight.

    I think one of the hallmarks of perfectionism is perseverance – I do not give up easily (and, in some cases, ever). But there is a point of diminishing returns, where I’ve learned all I can given whatever stage of growth I’m at, and continuing the fight is simply counterproductive. The fight can always be resumed at a later time.

    In this vein, I wanted to share some related wisdom I rediscovered – and can newly appreciate – during my current dark night of the soul: a blog post you wrote in 2006 on Washing My Face. Here’s the excerpt that inspired me then and now:

    “We all want to know where the point of transformation lies. I would say it is in “no space,” the place we come to after exhausting everything we know…and everything we are, a point of pure meditation. The current theory base, exemplified by Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U”, suggests exactly this process of emptying ourselves of everything known so that we can listen to a best future Self, a source of deep intuitive wisdom… Scharmer describes the bottom of the U as where we touch a larger field that goes beyond our present awareness, a place of new insight and new consciousness that enables us to solve the problems we have been stuck by using our current, more limited awareness.”

    As I read your 2006 post again, given my current context and what you’ve written here in the current post, I envision a crane in a quarry, where that crane is my self, digging up rocks, looking for anything of value below the surface. Eventually, the crane digs below the water table and unleashes a flood that then fills the quarry with Self.

    I think I’m nearly ready to suspend this dig again … for now, until I acquire the additional tools required to get deep enough to reach the water table. Meanwhile, the tools you’ve provided here are helpful in provisioning the ongoing journey.

    Joe.

  • Joe~

    I believe what you are saying about limits is exactly right. There is value in self-doubt as a tool and value in perseverance as a strategy but there are limits, and their overuse leads to the “dry pit” you describe. There is a big temptation to “throw good money after bad,” hoping that if we go just a little farther into the earth, the water (or the treasure) can be found. Using this metaphor, perhaps there is an answer in seeing how the nature of quarrying is a problem, that the quarrying itself is not only the result of pain but is also causing pain, and that the answer may be that we cannot ever quarry deeply enough to reach the water of Self. Then because that’s not going to work, the only option is not only to stop digging but also to get out of the crane, as well. I suspect it’s at that point that you might notice the water spilling into your boots. But this is only a metaphor, and not the actual experience.

    Best
    ~Dan

  • Good stuff, Dan, as usual. I speak to this in my book Becoming a Better You – Who You Are vs. Who You Think You Are.”

    For me, one of the ways of inquiry is to not get caught up in a cognitive, intellectual and mental state assuming transformation results from that state. It does not and cannot. We cannot logic (alone) our way through the psycho-emotional roadblocks that keep us from transforming.

    Self-compassion is important here (IMHO). Self compassions supports us to truly love ourselves and accept ourselves (i.e., our self-limiting beliefs, “stories,” attitudes, assumptions, expectations, thoughts, etc.) in a way that lessens their pull and lessens our insatiable need to “be (fill in the blank.).

    Self-compassion and self-love can lead to a lessening of self-criticism and self-judgment (your violence?).

    Mindfulness practice and meditation can take us to a place where we watch, witness and observe our self (the little “I”) from the place of our Self (the Capital “I”). In this place of observation we access our Self’s essential qualities – e.g., strength, courage, discipline, steadfastness, will, love to “BE” – a be-ing that is non-judgmental, accepting of self, and just plain “OK” with who we are, right here, right now.

    That’s where we leave the conflict, or simply observe it and not get caught up it in. This observation(…al process) leads to the greater “realization” or transformation we are seeking, a transformation that is not ego-driven.

    Nice to touch base, Dan.

  • Peter~

    Thank you so much. I like your description very much. Your “self-compassion,” I believe, may be my “redemptive experience.” Your “observation of self from the place of Self” may be my path in the mountains.

    There is no limit to the number of ways we can express what it means to step back out of the battle into joy, relief and an entirely different kind of experienced perfection. In this all words are imperfect, and therefore … art.

    You are looking for God.
    That is the problem.

    The God in you
    is the one
    who is looking.

    — Rumi

    Peace to you, Peter.

    ~Dan

  • Very well said, Dan. Having watched this play out in my own life and those of my friends and coworkers over the years, I clearly recognize the fight. I notice that often it sneaks up on me and I don’t realize I’m in the cycle until something brings me back to awareness. Sometimes when that happen I’ll feel a shudder through my whole body as the tension breaks, even if just for a moment. That moment opens the door to a different path as you described. It really does feel like a spiritual experience. An awakening. It seems this is a process that repeats itself many times. I suppose that’s ok, and part of self-compassion is forgiving myself and being patient as I continue to learn. Thank you for reminding me again of the bigger story.

  • Scott~

    You are most welcome — I am glad you found value in the post. Your thought that this stuff “sneaks up” on you is important. It sneaks up on me, too. If somebody honks at me in traffic, in the moment I may right back in the fight! So there is a practice involved here, and a meditation, and a re-recognition that the heart of joy is not about winning the fight.

    Thank you so much for adding your valuable perspective and personal experience to the discussion, Scott!

    Best
    ~Dan

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