Recovering From Perfectionism
Since the days of old, I’ve held the highest standards for myself. I tend to set bizarre expectations, that only matter to me. From elementary school until college, I’d rewrite my notes or homework assignments if I didn’t like my handwriting or the pen I was using. I used to be extremely meticulous about my appearance. Though my “symptoms” of Perfectionism have evolved through the years, I find signs of it in my current life all the time. I am still recovering from Perfectionism.
(My) Definition of Perfectionism: Set the highest expectations for yourself, that you can’t possibly meet consistently, only to be disappointed, and experience self-loathing when you fail.
Why Perfectionism? It sounds awful. Unfortunately, its not a conscious choice—its more like a maladaptive defense mechanism. And simply put, I long-ago learned to incorporate the ideal of being perfect into my core beliefs, because it served me.
It’s been touched on slightly in previous posts, but my childhood was a mix of happiness and trauma. I didn’t realize I grew up in an abusive home until around age 26. It was just my normal.
Who knows why we turn out the way we are? We are like a recipe for stew with a million ingredients and the final product is us. In all our glory. Which specific ingredient made us a particular way? That’s hard to pinpoint. Nevertheless, a skill I learned at a young age was: don’t make a mistake and no one will be angry with me. Of course, this isn’t how it always worked, but hey—in a world where I had little control, here was something I could control: myself.
How it Served and Hindered Me
My dutiful and obedient qualities transferred well at school. I was well-liked (by teachers and peers), at the top of the class throughout my entire academic life, and involved in a million extracurricular activities. Again, here, my Perfectionism served me. I worked hard to be as good (which equalled perfect) as I could be at school, and in that setting I was rewarded with friends, approval, awards, and all the recommendation letters I wanted.
Of course, there is a dark side to Perfectionism. I remember when I received a ‘C’ in High School Geometry (a 10th grade class that I was taking in 8th grade). I cried. Or a few years ago, when I sent an email to a prospective employer addressing the wrong person. My self-talk became “How could I have been so stupid to not proofread that?!” (I called her Sonja instead of Sophia! And I knew her name!) My self-esteem was low for a long time. I have countless examples of self-deprecating thoughts.
And With Money?
In my Financial Stability journey, Perfectionism has also reared its head. Before, I thought I was too stupid to know a single thing about finances. Now, I follow my budget like a religion, and can get pretty disappointed if I veer too far off. The solution? Don’t go off budget. It ends up looking great for my savings rate and my net worth. However, this is still a cognitive distortion which sets me up for severe disappointment when I inevitably cannot meet my own expectations.
The weird thing is, I never considered myself a perfectionist at all—because I knew I wasn’t perfect. As smart as I am, I had a warped way of defining that word. About six years ago, when I realized (or rather, it was pointed out) I am, in fact, a perfectionist, I insensitively thought, “How silly and pathetic was I, to expect perfection?!”
I want you to know, dear reader, I am not that unkind to myself anymore. But I still find strange manifestations of perfectionism in my life.
How Do I Know I am a Perfectionist?
- Extremely High Standards: either I post 3 articles a week on my blog, or I’m not cut out for this and should quit blogging altogether. (Also an example of All or Nothing thinking).
- Not Allowed to Make Mistakes: don’t be late, don’t make an error at work, don’t send an email without proofreading it, don’t let anyone down, don’t cry, etc.
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: don’t try anything I won’t be great at; either I’m the best or I’m the worst. This was an idea I tried to challenge when I started this blog (an example of poor writing and my first brave attempt here).
- Mild OCD: is it true Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? No. However, it shows up in mild ways: I like my spaces clean, and if the space isn’t, I’ll imagine a host of germs everywhere. Things have to be “Just So”. I like to be organized and I love my planner. Things have to be done in a certain way, or put up in the “right” place. I’ll set goals like I need to read one book a week, or check off 3 things on my Things-To-Do list today. If I don’t, I’ll feel I’m falling behind. I am the only one setting these standards. But, I forget that and believe if I don’t meet them, I’m a failure (extreme, I know. It’s an extreme way to think. See All-or-Nothing thinking).
- It’s the Destination, not the Journey: I will hunker down and power through shitty jobs, shitty relationships, etc. The thought I have is, if it’s worth it in the end, all the shitty stuff will have been worth it too. (See this post about burnout). I’ve overstayed in many destructive situations because I get married to an ideal end-result and I hoped the gamble would pay off.
- Hard on Myself: For this post, after writing out some of the self-talk phrases I’ve used in the past, I cringe. It’s pretty self-evident I am my own worst critic. Again, going back to my upbringing: If I find the flaws first, I might be able to fix them before anyone notices. And if I can’t, at least I am braced for negative feedback from the outside. If I’ve said it to myself first, there’s nothing you can say that can hurt me.
These Things Suck, Right?
Yup, being a perfectionist can suck. When I don’t achieve my self-imposed goals, I can feel down. When I suspect someone is disappointed in me, or that conflict is around the corner, I can feel anxious. As obviously maladaptive as it appears in a collated post like this, Perfectionism can be insidious. There are people just like me walking around in this world, seemingly unaffected by setbacks on the outside, but on the inside they are uuupppppset! Perhaps, this article resonated with you.
Here are some ways to alleviate Perfectionism:
- Acknowledge Your Perfectionism: See it for the problem it is. It doesn’t foster an accurate perception of ourselves or our place in the world. It’s harmful. If we hold onto it, we can’t be rid of it.
- Tell on Yourself: If you have someone you can bare your soul to, do this. Tell them the mean things you say to yourself. Hear how ridiculous they are, and let someone rational dispute those things. This was one of the harder things to try, because being vulnerable was unfamiliar to me, but it has made all the difference. Now, when I find myself feeling low because of a minor (or major) error, I will simply tell my spouse: “I’m feeling shitty about this weird situation that happened earlier today…” Talking it out reminds me of my self-worth.
- Write it Out: Journal the thoughts, self-talk, and fears you have. Then try to come up with counter-narratives for them. A common piece of advice I hear is: Play the Tape Out. Movies have a beginning, middle, and end. The middle (climax, or catastrophe), is where a perfectionist might stop the narrative. Play the whole tape out. Then what? If you don’t meet X expectation, it will suck and then…you’ll probably be fine.
- Practice Self-Compassion: There are a million ways you can do this. All of these Self-Care strategies, by seeing a counselor, through positive self-talk, etc. Your self-compassion doesn’t have to be perfect. It is too powerful not to work, even if it’s flawed. Whatever you do, you deserve it.
- Remind Yourself You’re Human: No shit right? But if you berate yourself for crying in an argument with your spouse, or for being socially awkward from time-to-time, or bungling something at work: you’re human. Everyone does it. I will sometimes make light of my reactions by saying to myself: “I guess I was just being a human today.”
- Practice Setting Realistic Goals: If you don’t ever workout, and decide to start a 6 day/week workout regiment, that might be unrealistic (I’ve done this). It is ok to slowly incorporate something into your life, give yourself a learning curve, or fail and try again. Above all, enjoy yourself.
The Problem With Perfectionism
Perfectionism is reinforced by society at every turn. If I spent an hour on my appearance, I am complimented and cooed over (I know some really nice people, ha). This reward encourages me to over-emphasize the value of my appearance. If I am successful within my profession, my finicky and fastidious work-ethic is strengthened. Being “detail-oriented” might serve my employer, but it doesn’t serve me if I take it to the extreme. When I buckle down and get my financial house in order, my net-worth grows, and also allows for inflexibility to creep in. All along the way, I might forget to enjoy the ride.
So here I am, doing my best to fail, scrape my knees, and try again. Though I still have a long way to go, I’ve gotten so much better (laughing maniacally at my mistakes helps). I’ll keep practicing valuing my relationships more than my successes and loving this fascinating adventure, instead of “Good Job” stickers. Because I’m alive. And that is the wildest, most euphoric, undeserved triumph I know.
Interested in learning more about Perfectionism? Check this out!
How do you practice Self-Compassion? Did this post resonate with you? I’d love to hear from you!