"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. 


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.


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  • 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. 


  • 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!


  • 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!


  • 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~

    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.


  • 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.


  • 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!


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