Dr. Finlayson-Fife speaks about the perils of Perfectionism with Monica Packer of the About Progress Podcast.
You can listen to this podcast episode here, and learn about About Progress Podcast here.
Monica: Many of you will know Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife as “The Mormon Sex Therapist.” Yes, she is indeed an incredible therapist who deals primarily with relational and sexual issues, but as Jennifer says her therapy focuses mostly on just being human and the challenges related to being human. Turns out one of the largest developmental hurdles her clients often face is perfectionism.
Jennifer has a lot to say on this topic. She reveals what is really going on behind perfectionism, and also shares what someone can do to combat this flawed thinking and behavior in their own life, and how they can develop a better capacity to refine who they are with integrity and grow more fully into the person they’d like to become.
On to our interview.
Monica: Hello, I’m here with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. Hi Jennifer!
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Hi.
Monica: Thank you so much for being on this show. It really is a big honor. I would love it if you could give us an introduction to who you are and what you are known for.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Sure. So, I am an LDS therapist and I practice here in Chicago and I work primarily with LDS couples and individuals on relationship and sexuality issues, primarily. Although, of course, just being a therapist, I work with just being human. And the challenges related to being human. But my major focus is sexuality
I wrote my dissertation on Mormon Women and Sexuality. So that’s been a primary focus of my thinking and my work.
Monica: Well, that’s great. And you have a family as well, is that right?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, I am married and have three children, and I grew up in Vermont. I did my education at Brigham Young University and Boston College.
Monica: So some people might be wondering why a sex therapist is on this podcast; but, like you talked about, you talk about being a human with your clients.
And I want you to talk about today how you think the dangers of perfectionism, and the effects of perfectionism, relate to the dysfunction you often see in your clients’ lives and their relationships. So do you see that often?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, absolutely. I see it a lot. Yeah, as you were saying, perfectionism is a very human behavior, and to be completely straight forward, an immature human behavior. Immature in the sense that it really is – it really is developmental. When someone is orienting to life from a perfectionistic demand on themselves and/or on others, it, at a bare minimum burdens their relationships—their relationship to themselves, their relationship to others. A perfectionistic demand is going to make you much less interested in intimacy than you are in getting validation from people. And so, because I work primarily on relationships, and emotional and sexual intimacy, when someone is perfectionistic, part of the demand that they have on themselves and others is that they are viewed positively at all times. And, as you can imagine, that precludes intimacy.
It precludes intimacy because you only want the good parts to be known, not the undeveloped parts or the darker parts of yourself. And, if that’s, if that’s in place and you won’t challenge it, then you’re going to put up walls to limit how knowable you are. Or you’re going to pressure other people to yield to your view of yourself in the world that you want them to have. And that’s going to undermine peace in one’s relationships.
Monica: So, how would you define perfectionism?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think perfectionism is basically, as I said earlier, a demand that you are somehow above the human condition. It’s kind of a demand that you be seen as flawless or above reproach or somehow meeting all the culture ideals at all times – and that—It’s sort of an intolerance of the world in which we in fact live, which is a very imperfect one. I don’t even know if perfect is even a word that fits with being human because it’s an impossible juxtaposition. It’s kind of saying, “I reject the human condition, and I’m going to try and live above it and ask others to pretend that’s possible with me.”
Monica: You know, I saw on your site that you talk about one of the things you specialize in, with women in particular, is that “superwoman complex”. And I really loved how you described that and I thought that it’s a really good way to describe perfectionism. Do you think those two are related?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah. Absolutely. I can’t remember how I explained it on my website. That’s interesting, but yes, they are absolutely related. It’s this idea that I want to be seen as perfect. I want to see myself in superhuman qualities, and I want others to see me that way.
And, you know a little bit of my response to that in working with clients is, you know, “get over yourself”. We’re all in this together! I mean, this is just what it is to be human is to be flawed. It’s just inherent. I think the challenge is that we make, somehow, flaws connected to our value.
And, so when you’re resisting the acknowledgment of your imperfection or your flaws, your inherent flaws – inherent to being human – you are basically trying to pressure off this idea that you’re less than. And so when you connect the issue of your development, or your flaws, with your value, you’re in trouble.
Monica: So, that’s what’s happening here. When someone is striving to reach an unreachable ideal, they’re just refusing to acknowledge their flaws and . . . or what else?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, I think that’s right, but I would say it slightly differently. They are kind of refusing to deal with their human condition – which is always underdeveloped. That is to say, the wonderful thing about being human is that you can always develop. You can learn, you can refine, you can grow, you can become more capable at things that you’re striving towards. You can affect things in the world. You can do. But to acknowledge the capacity for development, on some level, is to acknowledge that there are many things that you are, and that there are many things that you are not yet. And to tolerate that fact, I mean, it is part of our own development–what I would consider our emotional and spiritual development–is to tolerate that fact. And it’s the intolerance of that, that limits our development paradoxically.
Monica: Because you’re not allowing yourself to see the possibilities within yourself, is that why?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. Well, yes, that’s right, but you’re not willing to see your limitations and really acknowledge them except with disgust, or pressuring them away, hiding them. It’s not a developmental view, it’s a view that I have to be seen in a particular way or see myself in a particular way or I’m going to be depressed and self-hating.
Monica: Why do you think it is so appearance-based then, you know, the fear that people are viewing someone who is a perfectionist, they are worried about how others are viewing them constantly, it seems like, but it’s also appearance in terms of physical appearance too. Why does it translate to that?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, at least, in our culture it does and I think we are a very image-driven culture in that we have Facebook and Twitter accounts and Instagram, people are very invested in the image of themselves that they’re putting forward. We have, you know, stars, meaning Hollywood stars and so on. It’s very appearance focused. So we are in a highly media driven culture, and – for example, if you look at the journals of an adolescent today versus the adolescents of the 1890s, an adolescent in the 1890s was really focused on what kind of character she had. Now, she may have been trying to get the picture of high character to the people around here – I’ll talk about that in a minute – she may have been more focused on whether or not people saw her as having high character. But the adolescents of today are very focused on how thin they are, what they look like, whether or not people think they’re sexy. It speaks to the cultural crazy that we live in these days. But, the other piece in it is that we – when I talk about perfectionism as being an immaturity – is that when we are young, our sense of self is highly created through what other people think about us.
Monica: I see.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That is to say, we are referencing the people around us to manage our sense of self, and there’s nothing going wrong about that. That’s developmentally the only option we have. So our physical autonomy outpaces our psychological autonomy. And so when we are looking to others to tell us we’re sufficient, that is necessary, but ideally we grow out of that high-dependency into more ability to self-regulate, and to self-evaluate, and to think about what our own ideals are and what we think about ourselves and our behavior. When we’re immature, when we remain immature–and often when we grow up in a family system that’s not encouraging of our own psychological autonomy – meaning we have a parent who is pressuring us to be what they want or withholding of approval and so on – then that dependency (on others to tell you you are okay) can stay alive well into adulthood. And for many, they never grow out of that dependency. It’s a tough way to live because you’re trying to manage the picture that other people have of you at all times. That is what perfectionism is expressing, in part.
Monica: What else do you think drives people holding on to that dependency on what others think of them?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think that people – we are narcissistic at birth, and some of us grow out of it and some of us don’t. I think that’s, again, what spiritual development is-– is to grow out of our self-absorption. Human beings like to create hierarchies. It’s part of this other reference. We’re trying to get an assessment of whether or not we’re above or below them. That’s part of our immaturity. So perfectionism, in the name of having high values and the name of being a good person for many of us, we’re really trying to psychologically feel superior to others.
We’re trying to feel, you know, “I’m above reproach”. Other people will see me as—-I can tolerate flaws in someone else, I can’t tolerate them in me.
You know, I can be okay with somebody else having imperfections, but I can’t tolerate them in me. I must be seen at all times as above reproach or criticism. It’s a desire to manage our sense of self by being on top, in a sense.
Monica: So, what I think that you are talking about is the flawed thinking that is going on in a perfectionist mind. I want you to speak more on that. You just talked about the flaws of really owning that, what’s happening is that you’re trying to feel and being seen as superior, and I think a lot of people would be startled to learn about themselves, but it’s there. You know, perfectionists don’t want to [see] that flaw in themselves, ironically. Can you tell us more about what flawed thinking is going on behind someone who is striving for perfectionism?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Sure. I mean, I think – let me think about your question a little bit. I mean I think that there are kind of two frames through which people can relate to the human condition of being flawed—And what I would say, inherently worthwhile. I think of human beings as inherently worthy, that’s part of the U.S. Constitution, that the assumption : Because you are, you have basic rights. You have basic value. And that’s a part of Christian thinking. Because you exist, you have inherent value, right?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: But as human beings We have a hard time really accepting that fact, and so one of the ––I do online courses and I talk a lot about this issue of self-value and how our relationship to our own value impacts intimacy. There are two different ways in which I talk about people dealing with the question of their value that are immature and destructive, whether to themselves or to others.
One is the way that we all think about, and many listening to this podcast are the most comfortable with which is this idea that I’m in a one-down position. I’m insufficient, and I’m trying to earn my value. And so, I’m trying to be perfect as in just trying to establish that I am sufficient. And I believe that is in fact what many people are doing. I’m just trying to establish through the supposed lack of flaws that I’m adequate, not that I’m superior. And so, any time I encounter immaturity or imperfection in myself, or failure, it’s so intolerable for me because I get filled with self-loathing. But what I think often times people don’t see in themselves in that one down position is how inherently self-preoccupied it is. It is very much about trying to manage this question of myself and how others feel about me. Not really about being in a relationship with other people and really doing good. The self-preoccupation is often done in the name of goodness but is actually about trying to get other people to say we’re okay.
Monica: Oh, I see.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: So it’s very self-absorbed, very self-preoccupied. It’s what I would call “anti-spiritual.” It’s like, “I’m the piece of trash that the world revolves around.”
Monica: Yeah, okay.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And so that’s one version of it, and the other version is the other side of the same coin, because these two frames can operate within one person very easily. It’s the self-esteem problem that Donald Trump has which is, it’s a one-up (rather than one-down). I have to see myself as superior. I have to see myself as on top, I have to see myself as most popular. I have to be above others or else I can’t feel okay. And so, I’m trying to demand—- The one-down position is contempt for self, the one-up position is contempt for others. I have to be superior to what other people are experiencing, and I must see myself this way. And so, in the one-down position you’re often trying to yield to what other people want from you. In the one-up position, you’re trying to make people yield to what you want from them—-i.e. their validation, their approval, their acknowledgment.
And so, it’s also an impairment of self-development. It looks self-confident, often, but arrogance is a deep immaturity. It’s also self-preoccupied. It’s also all about the self. And so, in either position, you’re not really in a position of caring about the people around you. You’re managing your sense of self via what’s around you. And so, real development is to come into a place of deeper compassion and acceptance. And by that, I mean deeper compassion for oneself and the human condition, and deeper compassion for others in their human condition. That’s what I think is a Christian ideal, is love pushes you forward, accountability pushes you forward, reaching out in compassion for yourself and others is an act of spiritual courage.
Monica: I want to talk more about that too, but first I want to speak on what you mentioned about those two sides of the coin. The one-down position, or the one-up position. There’s also a lot of times perfectionists are seen as overachievers, because they’re hinging their life on their successes, their achievements. And we, as a society, tend to praise those perfectionists.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Monica: But also, I think on the flip side: you have underachievers, too, that can be perfectionists. How do you see that happening?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, well I think that first of all, you’re absolutely right that we often will call ourselves or someone else a perfectionist as almost a compliment—kind of like we’re trying to wrap it up as someone who is striving so much to be good and someone who has high ideals. I think that masks the competitiveness and contempt in it. The self absorption that’s in it. Because I think you cannot be anything close to a perfectionist and truly want to do good. I actually think that people who really want to do good in the world and have high—how do I say it—you can very much want to do good in the world and have high ideals and have no contempt for yourself–
Monica: I see. Yeah.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: —at all. And no contempt for others either. So I think that yes, many of us are trying to forge a picture of ourselves as living above the human experience—The superwoman—she runs marathons, she has 5 children, her house is always clean, she looks like a supermodel, she’s got a big rock on her finger, her husband loves her. I mean this is what many of us are like—I just want that picture to be alive in people’s minds about me. Whether or not it’s true, I’m obsessed with people having that picture
Monica: Well, we almost want that [ideal] to exist, I think that’s why we praise people who are perfectionists because we want that to exist somehow, so maybe we can obtain it too.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Monica: It has to exist in order for us to be able to obtain it or strive for it.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, I think that’s right. I think we imagine that if we get there, that’s when we’ll be happy.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And I think it’s a fantasy.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I mean, because I don’t think that’s what really creates happiness and joy in a person. I know somebody who was just miserable, and he thought if he made a million dollars then he would be happy. And then he made a million dollars, and he was happy for a couple of months, maybe, but then he was unhappy again and he wanted to make two million dollars. This sounds like a very privileged problem to have, but I guess what I’m saying is that so many people that I work with in my practice, have impeccable resumes, and they’re still self-loathing. It’s not like this is what makes you happy. I do think good relationships make you happy. But good relationships are not arrived at through perfectionism. I can say more about that in a minute.
Just to get to your other question around people who are underachievers who are perfectionists : That is absolutely true also. I remember, I used to paint houses to earn money for college. I used – I had my own company and I would paint for people. I remember being in this woman’s house and it was a disaster inside. I mean there was stacks of stuff everywhere. And so, I sort of imagined she would not be a high demand person to paint for because clearly she didn’t have high demands of herself. That’s what my immature thinking was then. And as I started to paint, she would – she was one of the hardest people I ever painted for because she was so high demand in terms of what she expected. I thought for a while that was contradiction that she had high demands of others but not of herself. I actually think part of the reason she never got anything done is that she had such high demands of herself that she could never live up to, so she wouldn’t actually mobilize. And so, the fear of failure or the exposure of failure was so daunting for her that she wouldn’t try. Many people who don’t strive, who don’t try, who are always procrastinating or distracting or whatever, are often pushing off a tyrant in their own heads to mitigate the possibility of exposure to themselves and to others.
Monica: Wow. You know, I’ve been on both sides of that spectrum. I have been your classic overachiever, and then I have been your classic scared-to-try-anything underachiever. I like that you’re pointing out that the root is the same.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Monica: The flaw behind that is the same. So whether or not someone is an overachiever or an underachiever, what is going on in their mind? What is really happening inside?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I would say it’s the intolerance of making mistakes. It’s the intolerance of exposing their humanity to themselves and to others, and it’s an intolerance that precludes their real development. I mean, their spiritual, emotional, relational development. I think about like my daughter who is a musician, and this is where the frame of perfection for me—it’s a paradigm that is self-limiting. I don’t think perfection and being a musician go together.
Monica: It can’t when you really think about it. It can’t.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: You know, it can’t. And first of all, a very developed—someone who has mastered the art of their instrument – you might say “it’s a perfect performance”, but it’s not the right word. Meaning, they have found a way through the mastery of that skill to be able to deeply express themselves in their own unique way. Right? Through the mastery of something.
First of all, it’s not perfect because it’s not – even when in Christian scriptures Christ talks about, “be ye therefore perfect,” the meaning of the word perfect at that time was very different than it is now in a post-industrial revolution society. “Perfect” in ancient times meant to be whole, to be complete. So when Christ is saying, “be perfect” He’s saying have integrity, be whole. Develop yourself. Fulfill the measure of your creation. I can talk more about that in a minute. Development and integrity are valuable, good, important for having a peace of mind and self-respect. But perfect in our post-industrial revolution mind is about flawless, because when you had machines making something or creating something then, the goal became having no flaws in what was being massed produced. Because it’s no longer an artisan, it’s no longer a creation now, it’s a mass production.
Now you have a different way of thinking about what it is to have something fit your ideal. If we were machines, maybe perfect would fit, but we aren’t machines, thank goodness. I mean who wants everybody to show up exactly the same, right? So when you think about development, there are two pieces of it that are important. When I think about my daughter who practices all the time–you can’t learn how to play an instrument, for example, without tolerating mistakes constantly. It’s the only way you’re going to develop is to take as a given that if I’m going to learn a piece, I’m going to be making mistakes constantly. Meaning, I’m going to be refining the mistakes, perhaps I’m making mistakes at a higher level than I was a year ago—you will be if you keep doing it. But you are, in order to keep refining your capacity, you are involved in the process, imperfectly involved in the development of something.
Monica: I see.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And so, if – there is paradoxically statistics that says that very successful people have a higher tolerance of failure.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: This is true because you fail all the time before you succeed. You have to tolerate that you’re going to fail, and to continually learn something from it. I don’t know if “fail” is the right word. What I’m trying to say is that you’re not going to live up to what you were expecting or hoping for. You’re going to come in and do it differently, with less success than you wanted. Successful people take that not as a major exposure of themselves, but instead, “Okay what can we learn from that? What do I think I need to understand about that, and what do I want to do differently next time?” Then they do it again, and they’re going to do it at a higher level, most likely, and then they’re still going to make mistakes within that. Instead of that being an exposure, an impediment, they’re going to learn from it. It’s the people that are willing to take their mistakes, embrace them, tolerate them, and learn something from them, that develop. That’s what the meaning of repentance is, is to shift trajectory, to shift course. The value in repentance, from a religious frame, is that you’re learning something and correcting course, and your shaping how you are developing. But it’s inherent. Nothing is going wrong. It’s inherent to development.
Monica: So, perhaps, instead of striving for perfectionism, we should be striving for perseverance.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, perseverance and personal development.
Monica: And development, I like those. Okay.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Personal development requires perseverance. And it’s about refining who I am, someone who is capable, able in the world, has developed herself or himself. Has developed skills, has developed wisdom, has learned from her mistakes. That’s a refined person. Perfect has nothing to do with it. It’s not even in the paradigm. She’s taking her own development into an adult, seriously. Into a solid person capable of effecting good things in the world. That’s the goal.
Monica: I like that goal better too. You know, we had–one of my first interviews was with a woman who went from running her first tri- to running the KONA Championship IRONMAN in two years. But she really surprised people in how she talked about pursuing her goals because she said, “I am not a perfectionist at all.” That every single day she did not meet her goals. That even her small goals that she set for every training run or swim or bike, that she failed almost every single day. But for her, it was just about keeping her eyes on the prize, or like you’re saying, the development.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Monica: And the perseverance of her still doing it every single day got her to her goals, and a lot quicker than she expected. And actually, against a lot of odds. I mean, she had a lot of it. So I’m seeing what you’re saying in her because to me, I was just trying to grapple with how she could do it without being so, I don’t know, obsessive and mean about it in her own mind.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, it’s definitely a function of self-compassion to develop.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: It’s an expression of developing within yourself without hating yourself for being underdeveloped. And so, absolutely, you can say, here’s my ideal for today. I would like to get these ten things done knowing that sort of naming what it is you desire, or what it and you are striving for helps you to mobilize towards it. It’s a way of taking seriously what you value. But, you know, I know some people who won’t do that because they can’t tolerate the three things they didn’t get done.
Monica: I see.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And so, they will not even own what it is that they want because there’s so little self compassion. And also, what I would say is this self exposure is more important to them than their own development paradoxically. So it’s a self-betrayal.
Monica: In your practice, what do you see as effects of people who are holding on to this lack of self compassion, and that lack of willingness to own their weaknesses?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: So, again, what I would say is self-compassion or compassion – love – is something that you develop. It isn’t like good people have it and bad people don’t. I just want to be really explicit about that. That love is something – it’s a capacity that you can develop. Having the courage to value yourself and to try things that scare you, to do things that matter to you, knowing that you will do imperfectly and fail, but act anyway, is a deep expression of self-respect.
I value my development more than other people seeing me as flawless or seeing myself as flawless. I’m going to extend to myself what I wanted my parents to extend to me which was the ability to say you matter, I value you, and of course, you’re imperfect. It’s the way it goes, it is what it is. I want to offer that to myself. So partly, I’m saying that you can practice self-compassion, it’s a practice. You can practice that courage.
So, going back to your question – What I’m often talking to people about who are often unhappy in their relationships—Sometimes people come in talking to me about their unhappiness in their marriage and/or in their sexual relationship. What is often my first order of business is to address that they’re placing at the feet of their relationship anxieties, and frustrations that have more to do with their betrayal of themselves. That they aren’t taking their own development seriously, that maybe in the name of being a good wife, of being a good woman, they have sort of sacrificed their own development. Which is not the same thing as saying they aren’t perfectionistic, they may well be, of course, but they’re not really taking seriously their own sense of self in the world. And they have a very hard time loving or accepting the love of a spouse when they’re in a kind of contradiction with themselves. And so, what I’m often talking to people about is how to be truer to themselves—even their sexual self-development is about being truer to themselves, being more at peace with what their bodies and their sexuality, being more accepting of the whole of who they are, thinking about what it is that they value and who it is they want to be in the world, whether in their marriage, as a parent, or as a woman. And so, this is a very – it’s a kind of courageous compassion towards oneself that fosters development, not a hyper-focus on perfectionistic ideals, but a focus on being a more whole person, on being an adult in the best sense of that word. Being able to do goodness in the world around you, for your benefit and the benefit of others—that hinges upon taking your natural gifts and developing them.
Monica: Instead of the reverse which is about appearance, is that the reverse of that?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. I don’t know if I would say the reverse, necessarily, but the counterfeit, perhaps.
Monica: Oh, I love that word.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah. That I look like I’m about self-development, but really am about making others think I’m good. Making others think I’m sufficient. Making others think I’m superior, whichever it is.
Monica: So if we have some listeners who are seeing themselves in what we’re talking about [within] all of these variances we’re talking about as well within perfectionism, and they hear you saying something about practicing self compassion and developing that love for yourself, what is the some of the know-how behind that? What does that actually look like for someone who is deciding, “I need to work on this?”
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think one of the things that can be really helpful is to put on paper what the voices are in your head.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Like, to get explicit about – how do I think about this? How do I treat myself? You know, sometimes I’ve asked clients to do that and they tell me the thoughts they have and I’m like, “ Geesh, that’s a tough place to be. That’s a tough place to be inside your head”. Because many people have internalized the voices that were offered to them as children or the meanings that were offered to them—even if they weren’t explicitly said—about who they were, and my clients have taken over their parents job in a destructive way. Often people, you know they’re swimming in the water that they were born into in a sense, and it’s hard to really change it. If you can’t see it, it’s hard to do anything. You can’t change what you can’t see.
Monica: Yeah. Okay.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: So making it more explicit – Self-compassion is creating within your own heart a safe place to be, a kind place to be. Safe is maybe not the right word – [a] kind place to be.
Monica: Kind, okay.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That requires courage.
So, I think that making it explicit and then thinking about, is there a kinder way for me to relate to this moment? Is there a more honest way to relate to this moment? Meaning, often times those negative thoughts – they’re quite distorted. They’re quite self-absorbed and distorted. You know, you arrive 10 minutes late for a meeting and you think something like, “Everybody thinks I’m a failure. Everybody thinks I don’t even deserve to be here. I’m always late. I’m always failing. What’s my problem?” I mean, people will know what their own version is. You know, some people can have very hostile self-evaluations around imperfect moments. First of all, do I really think people were really … I mean is that true? Do I think everybody was thinking I’m a worthless piece of garbage? People might have been thinking more like, “Oh, she’s late. Okay. What’s the next meeting item on the agenda?” Am I always late? I’m not always late.
You know, there are depression resource books out there that help people actually shape their thoughts, to challenge the tapes they’re playing in their head that are pretty cruel, and to make them at least more honest. “I was late. I am disappointed that I was late. Others may have thought negative things, but probably most did not. Is there something I need to address or change to live up to my own expectations better? Is there something I could have done differently or was it just the way life was today and I need to tolerate that fact? Is there something I need to learn from this and/or do I need to just accept the imperfection of life?”
So much of living life well is tolerating what is, which is not easy sometimes.
Part of perfectionism is the idea “I can have control over everything, I can make the world be what I want and I can see myself as I want within it”, rather than tolerating what the world is and controlling what you do have control over and letting go of the rest. That is much easier said than done.
Monica: You know, I think you’re saying you have to make it apparent what is the script in your mind, you were saying. And then you learn how to talk back to that script, to interrupt it, to create new thoughts that replace it.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: More compassionate, more truthful thoughts.
Monica: More compassionate, more truthful. People who have listened to this podcast before know that I’ve talked about my history with eating disorders and you’re just reminding me of the beginning of my recovery. What was so exhausting was the thinking and realizing that script going on in my mind.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Monica: And trying to pay attention to it was very exhausting.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Absolutely.
Monica: And then replacing it was also very tiring and often defeating. But I think the big key to pushing through that, for someone [can say], “I’m trying that, it’s just too hard, it’s too much,” is what you just talked about. Controlling what you can and releasing the rest. It’s like also what you’ve mentioned too, that space for kindness in your heart is recognizing “I’m going to have these thoughts and that’s okay.”
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That’s right.
Monica: Right. So, how can someone in that place do both? Like, challenge – make the script apparent and then challenge the script–without also [creating] a whole other perfectionist cycle, like it can be.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah. So I would say first, absolutely in terms of the difficulty. You’re trying to change a habit, often a very entrenched habit of being that’s been bad for you.
And you may have come by it honestly, I mean I would say most of us that are in that position have come by it honestly. Meaning it was what we were offered, it was what we were fed. It is an expression of self-compassion to strive for something different. So just to say, “I don’t want to do this to myself anymore,” is often courageous and meaningful in its own right. And the fact that it’s difficult . . . I have [had] a client say to me once, who had been in a pattern of relating with his spouse. She told him to move out. He was now living in an apartment and he was coming in for therapy to really help him deal with his pattern of behavior, and interactions with her. And he was saying like, “I can’t do anything! I have to scrutinize everything I do, and it is so much work. I can barely function at work because I have so many habits of thinking to shift.”
And yet his marriage was on the line. He knew that it mattered, he knew he had to. I mean, you know, he didn’t end up might having back in with his wife, they have much better relationship since then because of that maturation. But he was absolutely right that it’s like a moment to moment practice, to really shift a habit. You know, I can about it in terms of like watching my children develop, watching them learn instruments and things like that has been really interesting for me in thinking about the process of development. When you learn a bad habit and then you have an stricter [teacher] say this is a habit that’s going to limit you. You need to undo this. That can be unbelievably frustrating because your mind is so prepared to do it in this way, and now you have to undo it and then everything sort of falls apart around it because that was supporting other behaviors that now have to be relearned. And so, to have the tolerance for the anxiety, the discomfort, the effortfulness, that is part of – the willingness to do that is an important expression of investing in yourself.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And investing in your development. So, I’m saying all those things like, first of all, yes, it’s hard. Second of all, it’s an expression of self-compassion to even try. And then thirdly, what I would say—I remember going through a long period of development for myself where I was really saying this is who I want to be, this is the kind of person I want to be, this is how I want to feel and be when I’m interacting with other people. And I had what I was reaching for very clear in my mind, and then I would go out and I would fail at it. I would be unable to hold on to that picture. I would feel like nobody—people see me differently than that. I could never be that way. —These would be the thoughts that would come into my head. “This is folly that I even think I could strive for something else. I’m just inherently not worthwhile.” I would come home from things like that and I remember just trying, my only goal was to just calm myself down around my failure, if that’s the right word. Around the fact that the experience was disappointing, and to hold some self-compassion and for myself. That was a kind of spiritual striving, looking for a sense of God’s compassion for me and some compassion for myself. And saying to myself, “Tomorrow’s another day. I can keep striving, and I think someday I will get this. It may take me longer than I want, but I think that I can do it if I keep trying.” That was an act of courage. To have said “It’s over, I’ll never make it, I’m a failure” —-In some ways it would have made me feel indulgently better in a paradoxical way to say, “I can’t do it. Life is asking too much of me.” But I would not have respected it as much as I respect now looking back, and I think even felt then—that I’m going to keep striving for what it is I want to be.
Monica: So I feel like what you’re saying is one of the most important steps to developing this side that might be missing in your life is a willingness to try.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes.
Monica: And people –
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That’s what faith is, right? That’s what the most meaningful understanding of faith is, is striving towards what you believe is good, even though you haven’t reached it yet.
Monica: So there’s a paradox too though to people who don’t, who don’t have – who hate what their lives are like. They hate whatever patterns they are in, they hate the effects of these patterns of thinking, but they don’t have the willingness to continue trying.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Right. And I would say the hatred, yeah, it’s a lack of faith and it is in some ways a kind of indulgence.
I was working with an adult woman and her mother last night and the daughter was trying to talk to her mother about what she needed differently from her mother, that her mother was always attempting to control and judge and tell her adult daughter what to do. And the daughter was saying, “Mom, I want a relationship with you. I just need you to acknowledge who I am and the good I’m doing in the world.” And her mother’s response to that was, “I’m a terrible mother! I’m a terrible, terrible mother. You’re right. You’re right. I’m a terrible mother.” So I start challenging the mother that she’s not in fact dealing with what her daughter is saying, and she said, “I just said to you I’m a terrible mother. What else do you want me to say?” I turned and asked the daughter, “Do you think your mother is acknowledging what you’re saying?” And she said, “No.” So I said, “what do you think your mother is doing?” And she said, “I think she’s making this about her.” In the name of self-confronting, she’s making an indulgent self- pitying move. An I-can’t-even-try-because-I’m-a-terrible-mother-move that is very tempting for us. In the name of “I’m trying but I just can’t do it,” we’re actually indulgently giving up.
You know, faith is tough stuff, having courage to strive in the face of your imperfections is not trivial or easy, so I’m not being glib about this. But that’s really where our self respect lies. Our self respect comes not through being perfect. Our self respect comes through knowing we didn’t cave into our fears, knowing that we didn’t cave into our self doubt and the worst in ourselves. It’s not living indulgently, it’s striving for what you actually respect.
You know, I’ve never had somebody say, “I hate myself because I tried and I failed at something.” If they then stopped, they might hate that. But people will talk about regret when they failed to try, when they gave up, when they indulged, because they don’t respect it in themselves. You know, arguably justifiably because it’s indulgent, it’s not really living up to your own expectations. The best way to be at peace with yourself is to, is to honor yourself enough to live up to your own expectations. Not the perfectionistic being on top expectations, but living up to being the kind of person that you really respect.
Monica: One of the – okay so you talked about how faith is hard and perseverance is hard. It’s not an easy work to still strive for progress in what you’re looking for, but I think what gives you fuel to continue is recognizing what the alternative looks like. It doesn’t look that much better.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That’s exactly right.
Monica: It’s way less fulfilling and I don’t know, maybe you can speak on that?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Absolutely, yeah. One of the people whose work I closely follow, and whose work has deeply shaped my thinking, is David Schnarch’s work. He talks about the idea that you don’t get the choice in the world around whether or not you’re going to be anxious. You only just get a choice around whether or not that anxiety is productive.
So, productive anxiety is faith. “Productive anxiety” is striving towards something that you can’t guarantee, and yet, it matters enough to you. You value it enough to strive. You’re uncertain, it’s uncomfortable because you’re growing. But, it’s productive. It’s moving you forward. Unproductive anxiety is the anxiety that comes when you won’t tolerate that. And then you feel this anxiety that’s pervasive which is “I’m insufficient, I don’t respect myself. I want others to think I’m good but I don’t think I’m good”. So the question is, “do you want to take your anxiety up front or do you want to live in it?” That’s really the choice that being human offers us. It’s just the preexisting rules.
I was working with a client recently who was at a choice point in her career and she really wants something, but it would stretch her a lot, and she is terrified of failure. But it really matters to her. She values it. She would like to be able to do this thing. She has a safer route that offers her more immediate validation. She knows she can do that role well, but it would be boring to her and not very meaningful. And so, I just said, “you know, you have a choice to make. I’m not here to tell you which one you should take, but you have a choice to go the safer, more predictable route and get the comfort of not ever failing, but not really fulfilling a dream you have had. Or you have the other route which – I’m not trivializing this—which is a higher risk. There will be more room for you to be told that you’re not doing it well. And there’s more room for you to be disappointed in yourself. But is pressuring you towards what you really value, and I think you have to decide what you think you’re willing to tolerate and what you really want and what it’s worth to you.” I think life confronts us to those kinds of choices.
Monica: Well, you just answered what was going to be my final question on this topic is how does someone do both? How does someone tolerate their weaknesses and their lack of abilities, but also still strives to improve themselves and take those risks that they need to take in order to reach a better development. So what, you know, you said so much throughout this whole thing but, you talk about an end goal, recognizing what that is. What else were some other things?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I would say perfectionism is a self-contempt effort. Development is a self-compassion effort. It’s because I value myself that I’m striving for these things. Because I value and have a passion for something—thinking about the things you have a passion for and the degree to which you want to develop it—not because you’re trying to prove something to somebody but because you really love this thing, you really value it, you really want to learn it because it speaks to something in you. That’s a kind of development that feels good –- It feels so good is to do the things that we value, that matter to us. Often times, people who don’t have many passions have turned off the question of what they desire. I offer an online course for women around desire (“The Art of Desire”), and I’m talking about sexual desire ultimately, but I’m talking about desire in general in the course, and creating a sense of self through owning what it is that we desire. What do you care about? What do you want in the world? Striving for that is energizing, not depleting.
Monica: Yeah. I can see that
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: It’s not zero sum at all. You’re fulfilling yourself as well as being more able to make a positive difference in the world at the same time. It’s driven out of passion and compassion, not out of fear, perfectionism, self loathing – that’s all constricting. Think about how hard it is to love and be in the presence of a perfectionist—It’s high anxiety times. And so, I think that’s at the core of it.
Monica: Well, Jennifer, we could talk to you for a couple of more hours. I’ve already written pages of notes, so I’m sure the people who are listening want to know they can learn more from you, and I wanted to give you a bit of time for you to share about some of your online courses for people who want to hear more from you, and glean from what you can provide for people.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Sure. Well, yeah, I do have online courses that are for LDS couples and individuals, primarily—although people that aren’t LDS – I understand that LDS are my audience, but it’s very similar to how I’m talking today in terms of thinking about Christian ideals and what it is to develop within ourselves and within our relationships. I have a relationship course, how to improve your relationship, and then I have a sexuality course for couples around sexual development within couples, and then a course on how to talk to your kids about sexuality, and then a very popular one which is well, they’re all pretty popular, but the most popular one is the one that I did for women which is the art of desire, and it’s really looking at your own relationship to desire, to passion, and then to your sexuality. So, you can maybe link to them, but you can buy them online and then you have access to the course as well as office hours with me where you can write in questions or participate in an anonymous conference call and ask me questions about specific situations that you’re trying to deal with, as they relate to the course material. And the other thing is that we’re doing a Valentine’s day sale on the courses so they’ll be 20 percent off for a couple of weeks, and it’s a nice gift.
Monica: Wonderful. Well, I’m going to put that in the show notes about where they can find these courses.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Sure.
Monica: And if you were to say if someone is listening and they don’t know where to start with those courses, what is your, what would be your primary recommendation?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Sure. Well it depends a little bit on where you’re coming in. I think if you want to address sexuality issues in your relationship, I guess what I would say there’s two starting points that I think are valuable. Either the relationship course and then doing the couple’s sexuality course, or starting with the desire course. I would say either one of those are good starting points. I would do the couple’s sexuality course second or third. The relationship course is a very valuable foundation for the sexuality course, and then depending on how much you struggle in these issues of perfectionism and desire, then I would do the art of desire course. Then I would do the couple’s sexuality course.
Monica: Well, Jennifer, you are so wonderful and you are doing so much good in the world. I’m really grateful you would take the time to talk with us and you took a lot of time too, so thank you very much for this great interview.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.