Born to be Sensitive: Understanding Perfectionism and Fulfilling your Purpose

HSPs and Perfectionism

One connection is no doubt the sensitivity to subtle details. When things are “good enough” for non-HSPs they may well be “ridiculously inadequate” from a HSP perspective.

A good analogy here might be ordinary folk versus music technicians. Music technicians have ears that are trained to pick up all kinds of sound subtleties. A song that sounds “just fine” to most of us, may be a blatantly out of tune to a sound technician. This may also mean that while we are happily dancing along to songs at a concert, the sound technicians in the crowd are scratching their head and obsessing about why someone failed to properly adjust the [insert expert language].

Depending on what your HSP expertise is, you may often find yourself scratching your head in a crowd, wondering why others seem just fine with something that obviously needs adjusting.

The “expert aspect” of perfectionism is obviously the upside. As such, I don’t think that there is a real downside to this kind of perfectionism per se. I do think that, due to our ‘perfection intervention history’ we may have accumulated a lot of negative judgements that create anxiety whenever we set out to do something out of the ordinary. In other words, whenever we are anxious about not meeting our own standards, and others tell us that we “shouldn’t be such a perfectionist”, it may not be the perfectionism that is really the problem. Let me explain.

HSPs and Mission/Purpose

That mission may have a clear name and definition, or it may be a vague sense of direction. Either way, we’ve probably put our mission into practice numerous times in the past, and not necessarily successfully. Even if your sense of mission is as vague as “making the world a better place”, the way you’ve gone about doing that probably defies non-HSP logic. In other words, being a HSP on a mission is hard. It’s hard because the things that we attempt to change, are the things that are mostly invisible to non-HSPs. To others, it may thus seem like you are fighting an invisible battle or attempting the impossible, or making faulty assumptions based on things that don’t exist. If people can’t see what you are doing, then they’re unlikely to get on board. As a result, you might find yourself trying to change the world on your own.

Big/collective change, however, only works when there is collective support for it. Striking out on your own to change things around you is thus a highly fallible undertaking. If you’re an optimist at heart, you might keep trying anyway though, and find that often things don’t work out how you imagined.

Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about merely “getting your way” here. We’re talking about a deeper sense of purpose. As abstract as purpose may seem, it is essential to our well-being. Our purpose gives meaning to our lives. Without it, we feel lost. Without achieving it, we may well feel inadequate.

For clarity, let’s recap: being HSP + noticing things that others don’t + wanting to make changes where others don’t even see a problem = not exactly an easy task.

Fears Blocking our Purpose

By the time you are reading this article, you may thus have unsuccessfully tried to follow your purpose numerous times. It is common sense to associate our goals in life with our time after high school, especially seeing that “knowing what you want to do with your life” can be a question that pops up again and again without a definite answer until well into retirement even. Yet, I believe that our sense of mission and purpose are not something that we figure out while choosing a career. Rather, we are born with it and, deep down, we are already coordinating our actions to coincide with our mission. Even if we do not consciously know what that mission is, we cannot but carry it out. Being true to our mission does not require having the right job. Rather, it’s about how we are in whatever we are doing.

From that perspective, you were already on a mission when you were a toddler. Unfortunately, while your intuitive abilities were probably functioning perfectly, your ability to put things into a bigger conceptual context were not functioning yet. The childhood universe is one in which everything is possible and the child takes responsibility for all the painful things that happen to them. This means that any child trauma is always coupled with a sense of “it’s all my fault” and that any toddler mission that fails can lead to a deep sense of trauma.

Let’s imagine that when you were little, you were trying very hard to make the world a better place. You had no real idea of engrained family dynamics, financial and health restrictions, personality disorders and any other big issues that may have been playing a role at home. As a result, your action plan would have been endearingly simplistic, likely involving a lot of love and trying hard and not much else. As a result, it’s very likely that you failed at whatever you were trying to achieve. Rationally of course, that makes sense. Emotionally and especially subconsciously though, any failures like this may cause incredible emotional pain and fear that remain active subconsciously until they are dug up and resolved.

The (inner) Toddler on a Mission

I suspect that any “fear of failure” (which is a common fear associated with perfectionism) has nothing to do with your capabilities or your worries about the future, and everything to do with something that happened in the past. Failure is not so much an objective perception as it is an emotional experience. To feel that you’ve failed means that you observed that something didn’t work out + that it is somehow your fault / that something is wrong with you. With hindsight you might be able to see some childhood incidences in which you tried to make things work that were impossible for you to affect. In real life, we are dealing not only with our own willingness and effort but also with the willingness or resistance of the other people involved, the time and place circumstances and all kinds of subconscious dynamics that have a hold on everyone. Yet, if you were on a typical HSP ‘invisible mission’ (meaning: one that non-HSPs cannot see or understand) then what are the chances that someone saw you ‘fail’ let alone have the sense to explain to you that it’s not your fault?

The fear of failure then may well be a traumatic memory of a time when you tried to achieve something that was very important to your personal mission and didn’t work. No matter how hard you tried, things didn’t work out. Since you were completely in “it’s all my fault” mode at the time, you would have perceived that as a deep sense of failure. Believing that you suck at the one thing that you care about most deeply is terribly upsetting. It’s scary too. Without anyone to tell you differently, an understanding like that can become a subconscious fear that gets activated whenever you try to achieve something that is important to you. The key then lies in talking to that little child inside to get a sense of what (s)he thought happened, and explaining that just because things didn’t work out then, doesn’t mean they will never work out.

Embracing a Lack of Immediate Success

Furthermore, it’s o.k. for things not to work out. We don’t control all the circumstances that play a role in our success. All we can do is learn more about what does or doesn’t work and why. Being on an invisible mission is per definition difficult. So being able to succeed requires being o.k. with not succeeding. When you take a lack of success too personally (as all children do and as our inner child might still do) then you’re stuck in the powerlessness that comes from believing you are über powerful and it’s “all your fault”. Understanding that your influence is limited puts you in a much better position to succeed.

Fear of failure then is not so much due to aiming too high or wanting impossible things. Fear of failure is a misunderstanding as to the real causes of not being successful and assuming that any lack of success says everything about you. While we have a lot of power when it comes to doing our own inner work, our power to affect others is limited. This is not a reason to give up, but it is a reason to get a sense of the bigger picture of things before you fall into any self-blame at not being able to ‘heal the world’.

“Should I Aim Lower?”

It is true that fear of failure would probably be non-existent if you were to choose easy goals. People who are not concerned with achieving much at all might thus tell you that fear of failure is simply a symptom of “wanting too much”. It’s important to understand though that as HSPs we are in many ways wired to choose difficult goals. We are attuned to issues that tend to fly below the radar for most people. We see connections that others overlook. This means that our work tends to be proactive but also not well understood. To illustrate, if you are a problem solver who shows up at the moment when a crisis peaks, then you’ll be perceived as a hero. If you are a problem solver attempting to clean issues up before they escalate, then you’re more likely to be perceived as “making a fuss over nothing” (guess which kind HSPs tend to be!). For various reasons, HSP missions thus tend to be difficult missions and it’s important to treat them as such. Your mission is not simple and getting things right all the time is impossible. In fact, just learning about why things are not working out already constitutes substantial progress.

Questions to Ask

Do you have a sense of what your mission is? What are some of the set-backs you’ve had to deal with? Do you remember an incidence from childhood in which you perceived yourself to be a big failure? From your current perspective, can you see the bigger picture of what you had to contend with when you were little? What would you say to your childhood self from your current vantage point?

In conclusion, to see problems that others ignore and/or overlook, that is our expertise, and it does not exactly make for smooth sailing. We need to trust that our mission is there for a good reason though and that we are uniquely suited to achieve the (perhaps) seemingly impossible. Like sound technicians, we perceive things that others overlook, making us “lone rangers” up to a point. Having a mission like that is tough, and we will have to deal with setbacks.

Here’s the other thing.

You might even be resistant to seeing and acknowledging the ways in which you are successful and also have trouble receiving compliments. Childhood conditioning is persistent, it overrules all our subsequent experiences, unless we dive into our inner world and track back to where the misunderstanding started and heal it.

So, whenever you have a sense that perfectionism is getting in your way, or a fear of failure seems to be taking over, look deeper. Ask yourself whether there is a “first time failure” that requires healing. We need all of our self aboard to succeed, we cannot afford to be torn inside about something that is so important to us – with one part of us being geared for success, and the other part clinging to the perceived reality of being a failure. Your mission needs you.

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{ 1 comment }

1 Jacquelyn Strickland September 28, 2012

Greetings Caroline from the U.S.
I love this article … (and the work you are doing) …. it encompasses so much
of what we HSPs must progress through on our way to becoming what I have
come to call the “Empowered HSP.” The 26th HSP Gathering Retreat will be held in Sweden, May 9-12, 2013 ….. would love to see you there !!
Jacquelyn Strickland, HSP, Licensed Professional Counselor &
Founder, with Elaine Aron, of the HSP Gathering Retreats

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