In her "Deep River" women's groups and in her book, Finding the Deep River Within, mental health counselor Abby Seixas offers six core practices for bringing more sanity and soul to women's lives. Practice number four, excerpted below, is about working with the inner voice of perfectionism to tame our self-expectations.
What Is the "Deep River"?
Beneath the busyness of our daily lives flows a deep river of creativity, passion, silence, and a place of contact with our own wisdom and clarity. This "deep river within" is a powerful antidote to the stress, frenzy, and sheer pace of daily life in our 24/7 culture – if we can find our way to this rich inner resource. One important practice that can help is taming our self-expectations.
Work with the Inner Voice of Perfectionism
Although it was probably ten years ago, I still remember vividly an image shared by a woman in a Deep River group whose life was feeling unmanageable. She said she was bothered that her daily life seemed to her like a quilt with random squares missing, especially at the edges. She wanted her life to look like the quilts she made for a hobby: no missing squares, beautifully designed, everything lined up and symmetrical.
We may not all carry such a clear image of how we want our lives to look, but most of us, whether we're aware of it or not, are measuring ourselves and our lives according to some picture we have of "how it's supposed to be." These idealized images, standards, or expectations can be helpful in defining and reaching our goals, gaining skills and mastery in our chosen endeavors, and making choices that match our values. But expectations can also get us into trouble. When our expectations are too high or are held too tightly, the resulting pressure can make us feel driven, fragmented, and cut off from ourselves and others, not to mention unhappy. This is not an atmosphere that invites the Deep River to flow into our lives! Instead, when we have too many expectations of who we should be or what we should do, we chain ourselves to the treadmill of endless striving and doing. By lightening up on demands we put on ourselves, we not only allow for a more flexible, creative approach to life, but we begin to create an inner environment that is more friendly toward balance, depth, and ease.
Holding expectations more loosely doesn't mean giving them up altogether. It means letting go of urgency, rigidity, and the need for things to be "just so" when those qualities are not warranted. This is a key to slowing down and having less stress in our lives.
The first step in loosening up is becoming aware of tightly-held expectations. Look for "shoulds" or "have-to's" that have a sense of life-or-death urgency, but actually aren't matters of life or death. (For example, "I have to clean the oven before the in-laws arrive!") Once you are aware of holding an expectation tightly, try some of the following suggestions for how to lighten up. You can figure out what works for you by trial and error.