“When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver.”
- Brene’ Brown
I admit, most of the blogs that I write are not done to impart my amazing wisdom upon my readers, but rather to process a challenge or issue that I have or am currently experiencing in my own life or in my role as a leader. This is certainly the case in this writing, as I share about my challenges with perfectionism. While at times I can say it may have served me, my quest to be “perfect” mostly has diverted or delayed me from realizing what was truly possible to experience in my life.
I learned the value of perfectionism early in my life. Growing up with an alcoholic father and the chaos it brought within my family, I learned that if I could be the “perfect son”, the “perfect student” and the “perfect athlete”, positive attention could be focused on me that created a wonderful distraction from the discord and upheaval that was happening at home.
In many ways, I benefitted greatly from my striving for perfection. I excelled as a student/athlete and received scholarship to play football at a prestigious school’s Division I football program. I was hired by the country’s top consumer products company with my first job out of college and thrived as a sales manager. I also trained consistently and diligently for over four decades to achieve mastery in the martial arts and eventually made it my career.
Perfectionism worked; until it didn’t.
The transition to become a martial art professional almost never happened to me, because of being frozen by the fear that is the ever-present companion of perfectionism. When it finally confronted me, I had to ask myself……
In 1995, the months leading up to my leaving my corporate career to pursue my dream of owing a professional martial arts studio were racked with the fear of failure that accompanies perfectionism. While I felt I was on my right path, I was still overwhelmed with the irrational fear of my ultimate failure and would continuously ask myself………..
While I was only 33 years old at the time, I was convinced that if I failed, my life would be over, or at least never recover from my monumental mistake. If I wasn’t perfect, how could I and my family survive?
It wasn’t as if I did not have people supporting me on my endeavor. On the contrary, every member of my family and friends strongly encouraged me to go for my dream. However, inside of me the fear and anxiety grew and expanded until finally I began succumbing to panic attacks.
If you have never had a panic attack, picture the feeling of your head spinning, your chest tightening and choking off your breath, the feeling of the walls closing in on you and the inability of you to change your thoughts to anything other than your inevitable demise. This all came to a head in the fall of 1995, just a few months before I was to open my Taekwondo school.
While at a company meeting of my currently employer, I began to feel the impact of my fears. I had recently signed the lease for the space of my new business while still being employed by my company. None of my bosses knew of my impending plans and only one of my workmates (yes, he totally supported me, too) knew of my plans to leave my “perfect” career in consumer product sales.
While at the morning session of our meeting, the walls began to close in, and I went into full panic attack. I was able to hold things together until our lunch break, however, when we went to a restaurant, I told my boss that I was sick and needed to go home.
Knowing I needed help, I found the presence of mind to get in my car and drive to a gas station. There, I drove up to a phone booth (yes, this WAS before cellphones) and called my church asking to talk to a minister. I was told one of my favorite minsters, Dr. Marjorie, was in and I could meet with her as soon as I could get to the church offices. I quickly got onto the highway and made my way to her office.
Once in Dr. Marjorie’s office, I began to share with this sweet woman, my plan and the intense fear it was brining up inside of me. Soon, I began to rock I my seat. I then asked to lay down upon the floor to ease my nerves. The next thing I knew, I was on the carpet in the middle of the office, laying in the fetal position. The intense fear that was brought on by my aversion to failure and my belief that I had to maintain my “perfect” world had finally overcome me.
Dr. Marjorie calmly picked up her office phone and called my then-wife and brought her up to speed on my condition. She eventually got me upright and cleaned up and sent me on my way home to be with my family. To this day, I have no idea how I made the 30-minute drive down the interstate to arrive safely at home.
As a true martial arts warrior (haha), I was able to compose myself and went onto flawlessly conduct a martial arts belt rank test later that evening for my students. None of them had any idea what I was going through, however, as soon as the event ended, the panic again began to take hold.
It was then I was taken to the emergency room of Swedish Hospital here in Denver. Because of my acute state, they sedated me, and I spent the night sleeping in the ER. In the morning when I awoke, my vital signs had normalized, and I was being prepared for discharge. It was then I was told by a doctor that may heart was racing so fast when I arrived the night before that if I had not been such a well-conditioned athlete, I would have gone into cardiac arrest.
The fear that accompanies perfectionism is definitely a powerful and paralyzing force.
This fear almost prevented me from living out my dream. Had it not been for the loving support of my family, friends medical and mental health professionals I would never have confronted and released my fear of failure brought on by my irrational perfectionism. I would have never been able to experience what was truly possible in creating my martial arts business and what would later evolve into my speaking and coaching business. I would have never fulfilled my dream to positively impact others, as well as experience my own profound personal growth along the way.
While this experience was transformational, it did not mean that I did not have to deal with my innate perfectionism again in my life. I later would have to deal with how the “perfect” athlete could lose the final match in the national championships (1998), how the “perfect’ husband could go through divorce, and how the “perfect” business owner could go through financial challenge and almost lose his business. For me, being aware of my tendencies toward perfectionism and refocusing on what is true and possible in my life is part of my ongoing work.
“So, you want to be one of those motivational speakers, right?”
“Yes!” I responded emphatically.
In her motherly wisdom, she then countered, “Well, if you don’t have any challenges or problems and everything is perfect in your life, do you think anyone is going to want to listen to you?”
This week, where do you have an opportunity to let go of perfection? When you do, just imagine the possibilities.
PS: Just prior to the filming of this attached video, I was inspired to create an 8-week coaching program I'm calling "If You're Pefect, You're Selfish" which will guide participants to through a journey of overcoming perfectionsism so they may realize what's possible in their lives and truly share their unique gifts in the world. The program is limited to 8 partipants. If you are interested in finding out more, send me a Private Message via Facebook or contact me at www.ChrisNatzke.com.
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