A longstanding source of sanity and serenity for me has been Jane English’s beautiful edition of the Tao Te Ching. Her exquisite photos illustrate the foundational Taoist text attributed to Lao Tzu and written 2500 years ago.
While I find parts of the Tao Te Ching baffling, exasperating and mystifying, Lao Tzu’s encouragement to accept things as they are still conveys an attitude toward life that I find to be a good counterpoint to my driven nature.
Since Taoist wisdom can be especially useful to people who are compulsive, perfectionist, and obsessive, I thought it might be helpful for me to share how this enduring and poetic book has helped me.
But first I should say, I’m not an expert on Taoism; I’m just sharing my personal experience of the ideas expressed in this one book.
Taoist Wisdom for Compulsives & Perfectionists
“The Tao” means, basically, The Way. The Tao Te Ching describes the way to live in accord with nature, both outer Nature, and inner Nature, who I am “naturally” or authentically. Rather than working to make things or ourselves different than they are, we’re reassured that it’s okay to work with them as they are.
But for someone like myself who’s always wanted to make the world a better place and to make myself a better person, accepting things as they seems like heresy. I mean, couldn’t Lao Tzu see how messed up the world is and how many problems we have?
But then I imagine Lao Tzu’s reply: “Maybe things are messed up as much as they are not because of Nature, but because of humans’ attempts to ‘improve’ on nature. Things like pulled tendons from working out too hard, depression and anxiety resulting from work addiction, and relationships harmed by efforts to control a partner or a child, aren’t Nature’s fault,” Lao Tzu tells me. “Not to mention your climate crisis. No, these are the result of trying to overcome Nature and shape it to your ideals.”
If It Feels Strange, You May Be Onto Something
Two of the suggestions in this book that are the most helpful to obsessive-compulsives are to live flexibly and to live effortlessly. But you might feel like these directions are actually contrary to your nature.
Paradoxically, for those of us who are driven, it may feel unnatural to go with the flow. If things are easy, we may feel like we’ve dropped some essential, urgent and demanding task.
The Tao Te Ching has helped me to question my need to row upstream against the current, rather than flowing downstream with it.
As I wrote in my book, The Healthy Compulsive, when new behavior such as going with the flow feels very foreign, it may be a clue that we’re moving in the right direction. That’s the kind of experience that leads to change.
Strange as they may seem to us, Lao Tzu’s suggestions can help us to work more productively and effectively. Being meticulous and project-oriented are natural for many of us, and we should honor those tendencies.
But the urgency and rigidity that we often bring to these do not come out of our nature and do not help us reach our goals. Urgency and rigidity result from the extra layers of effort we add when we feel insecure and need to prove ourselves.
Let me explain.
What’s Your Project?
Most compulsives orient their lives around projects, seemingly concrete, external ones like clearing closets or oceans. But there is often a more dominant, unconscious project going on psychologically that contaminates those healthy, external projects with unhealthy pressure.
When compulsives feel insecure about who they are, their morality, intelligence, strength, competence, value, or how cool or loveable they are, they often engage in an underlying project to use their natural rigor, precision and principles to prove to themselves and others that they are worthy after all.
This is not the natural way. This is not The Tao.
This need to prove ourselves is what leads us to feel that things have to be a certain way, to become inflexible, and to put far more effort into our projects than we need to. We feel the need to be strict and hard-driving because it feels like our value is at stake.
But, no pressure.
A More Natural Project
Taoism encourages us to drop the project of proving ourselves, and focus instead on the project of being in accord with (our) nature.
In Chapter 38 Lao Tzu advises us:
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
He encourages us to adopt modesty and achieve greatness in little things. (Ch. 62)
The idea is to not to give up on your projects, but rather not to infect them with your drama. Live your role with integrity, but don’t get caught up in proving your worth.
Nor should you imagine that the survival of the world–as you believe it should be–is dependent on your efforts alone.
It’s In Your Nature
But what does it mean for compulsives and perfectionists to live in accord with their nature? What would that project be?
While I’m simplifying here, research indicates that the compulsive personality is determined genetically by about 50%. So, things like perfectionism, meticulousness, and conscientiousness may well be part of your nature, what you were born with, as opposed to some neurotic compensation for how you were nurtured. But whether these qualities get expressed in a natural, healthy way or an unnatural, unhealthy way is more a result of how secure you feel.
If you can let go of the need to be perfect that comes with trying to prove yourself, life feels much different. You can flow more flexibly with your perfectionistic nature and enjoy it.
Similarly, your natural tendency to accomplish and achieve may be part of your nature. Many compulsives enjoy having a list of things to do and challenges to master. So, instead of grinding it out, savor accomplishing them with less struggle.
Give those projects meaning and purpose without getting stressed about them.
Flexibility: Flow Like Water
Lao Tzu suggests that we follow the example of water and flow flexibly past whatever obstacles we run into. Water moves effortlessly, and yet changes every inch of the world it touches:
“Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.” (Ch. 36)
Unhealthy compulsives tend to be unyielding and fight what they don’t like, rather than finding a way to work around it or with it. It doesn’t go well.
In its healthier form though, this tendency to be so resolute can be adaptive: having the resolve to accomplish meaningful tasks despite obstacles, and to accomplish them well, can serve all of us.
But too often the capacity to flow like water is lost in efforts to prove goodness, and we create lots of collateral damage: those pulled tendons, the emotional well-being lost to work addiction, and the relationships harmed by trying to control others.
Effortlessness: Action Without Struggle
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet nothing is left undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done (Ch. 38)
Because Lao Tzu counsels non-action, you might imagine that he’s suggesting we just lie on the couch and give up. This is a nightmare-fantasy of many of my clients: “If I lie down and rest I’ll never get up again.”
I don’t think that’s what Lao Tzu had in mind when he encouraged us to be effortless. It seems to me that what he was talking about was the amount of effort we expend, and the pressure we bring to our efforts.
As I sometimes demonstrate to clients, I can either hold a tissue box with ease,
or grasp it so hard I crush it. Notice the collateral damage
Same task, different levels of effort.
The same principle applies to bigger projects.
Drawing on my own experience, becoming a better musician when I was younger was not about “trying harder” but about playing with as much ease as I could. Becoming a “better person” is not about becoming more virtuous, but about being comfortable with who I am. Becoming a better therapist is not just about helping the client change through insight or compassion, but also about being present with both of us as we are.
Acceptance is just as important in achieving change as effort is.
Another way this manifests for me is that when I feel a sense of urgency to figure out a solution, I stop exerting so much effort consciously and let the unconscious muse on it for a while. The answer usually comes to me eventually. Naturally.
This isn’t to say that if something is difficult it must be wrong. Maybe the project isn’t the problem, but the way you approach it.
The Tao Te Ching encourages us to yield rather than to control, and this applies to our personality as well.
This has been one of the central messages of The Healthy Compulsive Project: Don’t try to be someone other than who you are. Embrace your obsessive tendencies consciously and channel them in a mindful way rather than trying to push back against them.
It’s not possible to give a clear-cut way to know when an inclination is natural, and when it is pushing too hard and we need to let go of it. But one suggestion that I can make is to be aware of your motivation by scanning for tension in the body, and for any sense of urgency. These may indicate that the desire for that particular change may be tinged with the need to prove yourself.
While I’ve pointed out in this post how going with the flow can make us more effective and help us reach our goals, another benefit of acceptance is more peace of mind.
For, as Lao Tzu says in one of my favorite lines,
“A contented man is never disappointed.” (Ch. 44)
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