Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff’s NY Times bestseller “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life” (Three Rivers Press, 2011)
Your inner task master must be tamed if you want to have a happy, balanced life.
Your inner slave driver is the part of you that’s addicted to workaholism, rushing, and going nonstop until you drop. If you don’t put in a ten-hour day, you get anxious. Also, you feel guilty relaxing or taking time off from work or solving emotional problems. In your mind, to feel calm is to feel guilt, a linkage you must first notice and then reprogram. The inner slave driver shows no mercy. Unchecked, it’ll whip you into an anxious state of physical and emotional collapse. To transform anxiety, rein in your slave driver by treating yourself with more compassion, turning down the tension, and regularly planning stress-free interludes.
Once, during an anxious period when my inner slave driver took over, I dreamed that a ceramic mug I loved with “Dance-Sing-Play” on it, cracked. This upset me because I couldn’t drink tea from it anymore. Upon awakening I got the message: to have more fun and put less pressure on myself so that I didn’t crack. Similarly, oversee your inner slave driver. Staying mindful of this voice and saying an emphatic “no” to it preserves calm.
Perfectionists are run by their inner slave drivers. They hold themselves to impossible standards, beat themselves up over mistakes, and are unforgiving when others make them. Perfectionism can motivate you towards accomplishments, but these are often hard to enjoy because, in your own eyes, they never seem good enough. You aggravate your anxiety with all-or-none thinking, a list of “shoulds” about how life must be led, and fear of not measuring up. See if you find something of yourself in any of these traits.
5 Signs of Perfectionism
In my book Emotional Freedom I suggest refocusing on your positive traits, what you have to be grateful for to counter perfectionism. Your inner slave driver is obsessed with perfectionism, and gratitude can help your inner slave driver to relax.
With patients, I work with perfectionism in two basic ways. First, I advise that they take the pressure off themselves by setting realistic goals and affirming those successes. For instance, with a patient who was chronically anxious because she couldn’t complete her never-ending “to-do” list, I suggested aiming for only two tasks per day, then telling herself what a great job she’d done. This is a behavioral way to scale down excessive expectations and practice positive self-talk.
Second, I help patients discover what’s motivating the anxiety of perfectionism so that it can be re-programmed. Did their parents equate success with perfectionism? Were their teachers intolerant of mistakes? Did they lack role models for self-compassion? Knowing these answers pinpoints where their anxiety began so it can be replaced with new beliefs and behavior. Unless you are aware of these psychological influences, it’s easy to click into automatic with perfectionism. Then setting realistic goals to combat workaholism or other over-conscientious habits may feel intolerable. Instead, try to catch perfectionism by seeing what motivates it and showing yourself compassion so that real change is possible.
We’re all imperfect; that’s part of the beauty of being human. I’d like you to try to see it this way. Learning tolerance and self-acceptance, particularly when confronting limitations, fosters calm.
Whether you’re a perfectionist or internal slave driver finding inner calm is predicated on finding self-worth through love – that means not beating yourself up or working an all-nighter. Such self-care is a way of honoring yourself.