Tangled: on self-worth, fear, and perfectionism in personal growth
From living on autopilot to uncovering intuition, and back again. Can a relentless pursuit of growth keep us stuck?
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Tangled: on self-worth, fear, and perfectionism in personal growth
A crucial part of my last 13 months of unemployment has been working to uncover my intuition. I even made it the first sentence of one of my pieces early on in The Comma Project.
I was blind to what felt authentic - in work, relationships, and life. I awoke to this realization suddenly and dramatically. I changed my life dramatically. And now, 13 months on, I wonder - have I lost touch with it again?
In many ways, I feel more in touch with my sense of authenticity than I ever have. When my body tells me something, I listen more.
Screeching hesitancy to a night out? Don’t go.
The thrum of excitement when reading about the story of the founding of our country? Finish the book, then read two more and watch a documentary on John Adams.
But in other ways, particularly in the domain of work, I worry that I’m, once again, overthinking.
I worry that I’m doubting my own inner compass. My sense of what’s true for me.
I worry because in this moment of this season of my life - early February 2024 - I feel, frankly, more lost than ever. Like I don’t even know what’s true for me anymore. Like I have a sense of what moves and excites me, the mission I’m on, what kind of work I want to do, but how in the hell do I get from here to there?
It’s like I can sort of see my destination on a distant hill, shrouded in fog, but I just don’t have the map that tells me how to get there.
I seek to create my own path to life and draw my own map, but damn, this part feels more confusing for much longer than I thought it would.
I’m realizing now what it truly means to seek to live this way.
So much fear. Fear that I won’t get where I want to go. That I’m missing out on something, or going “too slow.”
And so much shame. Doubting the soundness of my decisions, feeling like I’m somehow messing up by attempting to do things differently. Wondering if I’m stupid and naive for dreaming up a big, different life.
Perhaps this is the price to pay for a shot at making those dreams a reality - but I still want to find a way to work through them. I guess that’s part of what I’m doing here.
I’m re-becoming aware of the degree to which my sense of self-worth is tied to perceptions and feelings of achievement, success, and status in the professional realm.
I’ve been working on separating the two, but I find that I am still so damn hard on myself.
I’m reminded of a scene in Shrek where Donkey and Shrek got lost in a forest. Donkey was leading the search for a way out, but ended up repeatedly walking past the same spot, the same big boulder.
And over again.
I feel like that, except the discovery each time around isn’t a boulder, but this realization of my tangled sense of self-worth and accomplishment.
Each time I become aware of it, I work to accept that it’s the case, identify the truth (that my fundamental worth has nothing to do with my professional success), and leave it behind, charting a new path toward my desired destination, free of the forest and sense of lost-ness. But alas, I find myself here, right back where I started this chapter of life 13 months ago, accompanied by this bouldering sense of insufficiency and not enough-ness in unemployment.
I wish I felt more like Donkey.
When I find myself back next to the boulder, I’m dive-bombed by “shoulds.” These are thoughts that invade my peace and prevent my ability to feel that everything is simply alright, as is. Equanimity, as the Buddhists say.
I feel that I “should” be doing more. That I “should” have a job and a source of income. That if I don’t, then I “should” at least be producing more writing, or starting a podcast. Or if not that, then I “should” at least be learning more diligently - enrolling in more courses or workshops or bootcamps. Oh, and the one that really eats my lunch - that I “should” have more clarity or be taking more concrete steps towards building my vision for The Comma Project.
Essentially, I “should” be doing more of anything other than what I’m doing.
It’s so damn exhausting just to be where I am.
Beyond adding distress and torment to my days, I can sense that this is holding me back from actually progressing toward that distant, foggy destination.
Back where I started
I believe that actions or decisions made out of fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, or any other negative emotion in an attempt to stop everything from feeling so goddamn bad is not a healthy or beneficial way to move forward.
And so, with lots of help, I’m interrogating my life, particularly any drive or action that I’m drawn to in my stuck spot (the realm of work) to ensure that I move from a place of purity - from joy, mission, purpose.
But now I wonder how much of this interrogation is too much? I end up feeling such pressure within myself, from every angle - not only to find my way out of this sense of insufficiency, but also to ensure that the path I take to climb out of this sense of insufficiency is authentic, healthy, and invigorating. For me, it comes with such an intense fear of making the “wrong” decision.
I’ve ended up back where I started - to feeling as though I’m doubting and second-guessing my intuition all over again. Back to feeling wracked with and cloaked in this ambient, ever-present fear of doing things “wrong,” with a dash of rejected pariah thrown in for good measure as I seek to do things differently.
I sense my perfectionism rearing its head again, but this time, ironically, strapped to my pursuit of self-improvement, authenticity, and living in harmony with my true self and intuition.
In a messed up way, it’s kind of comical that my pursuit of self-improvement may be keeping me stuck, always searching for more clarity and the “right” answer instead of walking in what feels intuitively true in the moment despite its potential imperfections.
It feels paradoxical. I know that it’s impossible to do life perfectly - that there’s no such thing - and yet my deep desire to choose authenticity over perfection has brought me back to the domain of fearful, frozen perfectionism and insufficiency.
Greetings, boulder, old friend.
Answers, and questions
So, what’s the answer?
I hear one very plausible one all the time - simply learn to be okay and content with who and where you are. Learn to live with more self-acceptance and love.
But in my experience, there’s nothing simple about it. Knowing these things and feeling them are quite different projects.
And I have so many questions.
What’s the line between feeling drawn to do something from a pure energy source, like mission or service, and feeling drawn to do something from a deep sense of insufficiency with who I am and what is in the moment?
What’s the line between leaning into intuition and succumbing to a shame-fueled desire to be somewhere other than where I am now?
What’s the line between embracing imperfect action and experimentation and impatience?
What’s the line between patience and perfectionism?
I’m not quite sure I have answers right now.
But what I can tell you is that I’m trying to figure it out.
And I do feel a bit lighter after writing this.
What do you think?
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