Why Perfectionists and Overachievers Need to Forgive Themselves During These Traumatic Times

Dawn Bevier

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It’s all about human psychology and a newly formed caveman civilization

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I’m a perfectionist. I’ve always prided myself on being disciplined. Productive. Following through with my ambitions. But lately, I’m struggling.

Yesterday was one of those days. I am a teacher, so I got up, sat at my computer and did my online instruction, and then proceeded to lie back down in my bed and read. And don’t get me wrong, I love to read. But for perfectionists like me, reading is the reward for a productive day’s work. It’s an escape I gift myself for checking off what I consider an adequate amount of things on my to-do list.

And lately, my to-do list is a good friend with whom I have broken ties.

And it’s ironic because right now, I have the entire day to do the things that I want to be done. Doing home repairs. Exercising. Cleaning out the closets. Organizing things in my home life and work-life so they can run more efficiently. But I can’t seem to rouse the discipline or will power to do these things at this moment in time.

And because perfectionists are never gentle with themselves, I’m dealing with a lot of anger at myself. And depression as well.

But I read an article yesterday that helped me be a little more forgiving of myself. And I’m hoping it can help you do so as well.

The psychology behind reaching your true potential

As a lover of psychology, I’ve always known about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I never quite connected it to my unusual lack of discipline and productivity during the quarantine.

And for those of you who are not familiar with this hierarchy of needs of which I speak, let me explain to them so you can better understand and forgive yourself for your inability to produce or perform self-improvement activities during these difficult times.

Maslow’s studies revolve around the idea of all humans’ ultimate goal of self-actualization, a term used to refer to a person who is achieving at his or her highest level of ability. His theory was that in order for a person to reach his or her true potential, a number of needs must first be satisfied. Think of it as almost like a set of stairs that must be climbed.

According to Maslow, there were four “stairs” to self-actualization, and here they are in order of simple to most complex:

  • Physiological needs

These needs are basic survival needs such as air, food and water, proper shelter, protective clothing to survive the elements of nature, and sleep.

  • Safety needs

These needs are based on feelings of security and safety. This level is achieved when one feels financially secure, relatively assured of his or her own health, and satisfied he or she is protected from imminent dangers that could hinder survival.

  • Love and belonging needs

This level involves forming intimate bonds and connections with other human beings such as feelings of love, acceptance, and positivity that come from interactions with family, friends, and romantic partners.

  • Esteem needs

Once one has had these needs met, he or she can proceed to tasks that build confidence and self-esteem or the achievement of things that engender respect and admiration from others.

Finally, if one achieves all of these needs, then he or she reaches the “top stair” and can “self actualize” or actively work to become one’s best self.

The reason you’re not achieving or producing during this time of quarantine

If I continue my comparison of self-actualization to a set of stair steps, right now most of us are stuck on our journey. We’re doing a dance between steps two and three: safety needs and love and belonging needs.

And those final two steps? They seem unattainable.

Why?

Because of these uncertain times, we do not feel safe or secure. For example, I am one of the lucky ones, and I still don’t feel safe. My husband and I are both still getting paid our regular paychecks and my children are at home where I can be relatively assured they are safe.

But still, I suffer the effects of a disruption to my normal routine and a generalized feeling of loss of control.

For example, while I work at home, my husband works in an essential industry where he must go to work and interact with others. My mother is a 67-year-old healthcare worker, my father is a 72-year-old diabetic, and my stepfather is a maintenance man at the hospital.

Each day, either consciously or subconsciously, I deal with feelings of anxiety over their safety. I am also now working from home and uncertain about the new instructional technologies I am so quickly forced to learn and implement. Each box or piece of mail that I open brings a renewed sense of fear, each trip to the grocery store involves an internal conflict between getting the items I need or being safe from this virus that is ravaging our normal way of life.

Nothing seems safe. Nothing seems predictable.

Even my emotions are a roller coaster. Will I wake up and be able to do what I need to do or will my internalized feelings of stress and depression keep me from performing these activities?

And maybe you’re “lucky” like me. But most likely, you’re not.

So many businesses shut down either temporarily or permanently, so many jobs lost or in limbo where no payment is given, so many people with underlying health issues which exacerbate their generalized anxiety, so many individuals wondering if they will be able to pay their bills or feed their family.

And adding to these stressors is the fact that during this time of lockdown, no “plan b” can be enacted. After all, how many places can an unemployed person go right now to get a job? And the jobs that are open, grocery store employment or other food service industries, jobs that revolve around health care or the like, create a no-win situation. For example, people who go to work are afraid of contracting the virus, and people who are unemployed worry about financial matters such as losing their home or ability to provide essentials for their family.

As I said before, we’re all stuck in an emotional tornado from which there seems no escape.

And adding to this inescapable sense of anxiety is the inability to ascend to the third stairstep on Maslow’s hierarchy: satisfaction of needs of love and belonging.

Right now, we are all suffering from feelings of isolation. We are separated from the people we love most. Even the intimacy of human touch now brings fear.

In short, our minds are unable at this point to jump those stair steps that lead to self-improvements that, for the moment, our psyche is telling us are irrelevant: increasing our physical fitness, improving our diet, achieving progress towards our career goals, or other dreams and passion.

So we must be gentle with ourselves at this point in time. We must understand that we are doing the best we can with the situation we are experiencing.

The bottom line:

Right now, in a way, we are all just advanced cavemen and women, where each step into the world we once knew and trusted is now fraught with fear and angst. Our very livelihood and survival are at stake.

So it’s okay that you’re not painting a masterpiece or finishing that novel. It’s okay that you’ve only exercised twice this week instead of your normal five-day routine.

And the best advice I can give you is one that I tell myself as well. When you wake up and feel a spark of hope or inspiration, a sense of “I can do this,” then take advantage of that moment. Because those feelings may quickly be stolen by the caveman that right now is your alter ego.

And if no spark of inspiration comes, that’s okay too.

Because guess what?

You’re alive and you’re surviving.

And at the moment, that may be the most productive you can be.

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My goal is to provide you with thoughtful, informative, and inspirational content that may increase your productivity, relationships, and well-being.

Sanford, NC
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