“…all I plead with you is this: make love of your self perfect. Deny your self nothing–give yourself infinity and eternity and discover that you do not need them; you are beyond.”– Nisargadatta Maharaj
For many years of my life, I tried to be perfect and please others instead of understanding, let alone advocating for, my own needs. Like most women, I was socialized to ‘do it all’ and not to pay attention to what I wanted. When I had a free moment, I would fill it with a task or a plan with a friend. As a result, my schedule would be so hectic and full I felt like I couldn’t breathe—do you know the feeling?
Women are sent the message that we must accommodate others and keep them happy so that they’ll speak well of us and stick around. For many women, there is this feeling that we aren’t lovable or ok just how we are and we must earn approval by fitting into a mold of goodness.
What do you do when you’re ready to shed the shackles of perfectionism and have agency over your one wild and precious life? You may want to be free but feel held back by subconscious beliefs, fears, and trauma. For some of us, this looks like being so out of touch with our own needs that we need to come home to our bodies in order to find out what they are asking for (which can be terrifying and uncomfortable). Some of us know what our bodies want, but we write off that dream as impossible, in conflict with our relationships, too risky or too selfish.
When you are trying to shift towards listening to yourself, overcoming perfectionism and people pleasing, having better boundaries, or taking risks that might feel uncomfortable, here are some things to remember.
1. Know that fear is normal and is going to be there. We are mammals and our brains are wired to keep us safe. In our evolution, those of us that survived did not take risk, and those of us who did, died from eating poisonous berries. Fear is what kept our bodies safe for thousands of years and fear doesn’t instantly listen to our rational minds.
As a result, staying in patterns that are secure and familiar feels good, and branching out of those patterns is about the scariest, most counterintuitive thing on the planet. We may know rationally that we won’t die if we ask for a raise or set a boundary with a friend, but our bodies believe otherwise and rail against us when we try to take risky feeling moves that help us grow.
Remember that fear is normal and is trying to keep you safe. But also remember that you don’t have to always let fear drive the bus.
When I’m feeling especially afraid, I like to sit down with fear and have a conversation with my fear part. What is this fear trying to protect me from? How old does it think I am? What does it need from me in order to relax? Often times, just letting the fear know that it can be there and I’m here to listen to it really helps. Sometimes I listen and offer nurturing and reassurance (i.e. “I care about you, I’m here to listen, I’m going to do my best to meet your needs and to keep us safe,” etc.).
2. Those in power benefit from keeping women and marginalized groups small. There is a reason that you and I were socialized to be everyone’s best friend, high achieving, ‘beautiful’ according to an unrealistic metric, punctual, grade and money earning, nurturing to everyone in our lives, anxious and self-critical. We are part of a pattern that dates back thousands of years (maybe even before that).
When women, people of color, and other marginalized groups are exhausted, they can’t dissent and are usually producing a lot of free or undervalued labor. It’s more common to see women picking up the larger share in child rearing and care, and more common to see women stressing over keeping the house clean and stocked with food. Patriarchal culture benefits from this dynamic of women and underprivileged groups stressing about and performing a huge amount of labor—if someone else is ‘taking care of it,’ people in positions of power don’t have to think about those tasks.
Secondly, other more privileged groups don’t have to take accountability when marginalized groups are keeping themselves ‘in line.’ If a black person is blaming herself for not being able to get a higher paying job in her field despite being qualified, the system that kept her from getting that job can continue. Individuals with power and the ability to change things don’t have to do the work of advocating for change. If women are constantly trying to change their bodies to fit into an unrealistic, unhealthy mold, our tv and media can stay the same. Men commenting on women’s bodies won’t have to examine their own actions or feel shame.
Deciding to stand up for your own needs is more than just a way to take care of yourself and befriend your inner child: it is an act of dissent that benefits others in marginalized groups who are being kept down.
3. The subconscious beliefs you have may be running your life and keeping you from growing. It is often hard to face how much our subconscious beliefs have been holding us back. However, our subconscious mind is like an unseen puppet master. It’s making all the decisions in our lives for us, but we don’t even see that it’s pulling the strings.
To get more in touch with your subconscious mind, some questions I recommend asking are: What do I really want, and what am I doing out of habit or a sense of obligation? What would I have to feel if I created more space in my life or disappointed someone I love? If my life is ‘good,’ am I ‘allowed’ to ask for something better? What was I taught to believe about my own worth and/or using my voice growing up? What was modeled to me about my role in my family or society at large?
If you are struggling to even get in touch with what you want, begin by just asking yourself what the people, places and activities are that give you energy. What makes you feel drained? Where do you feel resentment? You may even just tune in to a sensation in your body and follow it. What is it trying to tell you? If it could move, how would it move? Maybe put a hand on that sensation and offer it some care. See how or if the sensation changes. If you need help tuning in with your body, or with subconscious beliefs, therapy can help. I’d be happy to talk with you more in a free consultation.
4.No one else is going to magically meet your needs. We often have a vision of a family member/friend/coworker acknowledging how much we have on our plates and deciding to help us or show us appreciation. We are waiting for our bosses to just give us a raise, our partners to give us consistent words of affirmation, or our work to give us fulfillment. Though people are wonderful and can show random acts of kindness and grace, we can’t count on these acts for our self-preservation. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we will end up exhausted, resentful, broke and lonely. No one is going to meet your needs but you. No one is coming to save you but yourself.
Though this might seem harsh, it can actually be very empowering to recognize that you are in charge of your own happiness, and you have the ability to direct many parts of your life.
5. It isn’t your job to take care of everyone else at the expense of yourself. Having good boundaries means letting others take care of themselves and you taking care of yourself. Just like it isn’t your job to anticipate and meet the needs of others (aside from, sometimes, your children), it’s no one else’s job to take care of your needs.
Though it may be hard to see this in specific instances, running yourself ragged to please another person doesn’t help them. When you are cleaning the whole house every week because your partner is too tired, you may be enabling them to sink further into a hole of depression. Can you think of a time in your life where you overcompensating allowed bad behavior to continue or allowed you to be taken advantage of? Can you think of a time when you distanced yourself from someone and built resentment because you took on too much? Tell me about it in the comment section below.
Furthermore, when we don’t tell people that we’re pissed off, need space or are exhausted, they don’t get a chance to really know us and they may feel confused at our behavior. Brene Brown said, “clear is kind.” Rupi Kaur said, “How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.” People around us want to know how to love us. They want the relationship to be two sided and not based on a sense of obligation. Just like we do, the people we love want to connect authentically with us. Boundaries help us have authentic connection.
6. The emotional growth that comes from this journey is priceless. Tuning in to your own needs, setting boundaries, and asking for what you want is a chance to reparent parts of yourself and become your own best friend.
However, it is tough to start the work of setting boundaries and taking care of yourself. When people react negatively towards this ‘new version’ of you, or when you’re in a space of fear because you don’t know how going out on that limb is going to work out, you may begin to doubt yourself. Let me rephrase that, you most certainly will doubt yourself.
Remember that every relationship, including the one with yourself, has growing pains and nothing beautiful comes without struggle. Imagine the future you with space for rest, loving relationships, authenticity, financial security and a feeling of self-empowerment. When you are embodying even a part of this future, and you are responsible for the growth it took to get here, you will be so glad that you struggled now.
7. People will show up for you. A therapist once told me, when we show our true self to people, we find out who can really love us. When we tell people how we feel, people often surprise us in positive ways. When they don’t or can’t, we may need to change some relationships in our lives.
Just like it can be liberating to let go of subconscious beliefs that aren’t serving us, it can be liberating to let go of people and relationships that aren’t fulfilling or healthy. Letting go of these relationships may be painful, but it is the only way to make room for ones that fill our cup.
Though there may be some relationships we have to change or let go, there will also be people who show up for us. There will be people who hear us, answer our calls, and tell us how they feel in return. There will be people who also want a chance for true intimacy.
Reciprocal relationships are fulfilling in a way that one sided relationships never can be. Relationships with available people help us grow, feel nurtured, and even heal deep wounds from a childhood where we didn’t experience closeness and healthy attachment. We heal in relationship. But our connection to others, to our earth, and to our values begins with our connection to ourselves.
The benefits of developing a healthy relationship with yourself don’t stop at just having a better life. As you let go of perfectionism and live for yourself, you will feel more confident, more in control, closer to others, and more easeful. You will be modeling healthy boundaries for others and going against a system that benefits from oppressing others. Mary Oliver said, “Happiness, when it’s done right, is a kind of holiness, palpable and redemptive.” You are worthy of happiness and not needing to be perfect. You are worthy of a perfect love with yourself.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping feminist, perfectionist women practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.