Perfectionism often plagues us in our daily lives, leaving us feeling not good enough regardless of what we do or accomplish.
"I’m a recovering perfectionist. I say “recovering” because it sneaks into my mind in ways so subtle, it can take weeks to detect it lurking in there. The appeal of it is almost irresistible. If I can be a perfect wife, mother, therapist, friend (you name it), that will protect me from all the bad things waiting for me. When you put it that way, sign me up!
Perfectionism serves us well. As a kid, it protects us from our parents’ disapproval – keep your room clean, good grades, be polite. Those things can go a long way to put you in the good graces of your mom or dad. If you do well in school, your teachers smile at you, use you as an example, other kids ask for your help (or want to copy your work)! With your friends, if you’re a good listener, problem solver, joke-teller, they always want you around.
I mean for a kid turned tween turned teenager turned young adult, you can’t ask for much more than that!
While life sails along smoothly for a while, you are enjoying the benefits of perfection – approval, open doors, comfort, love. Soon perfectionism starts to ask more and more of you. This is surprising because it’s always been your friend until now, even a survival guide.
Soon, perfectionism will ask you to pull an all-nighter in college to get an A. Soon, it will ask you to ignore your own work or needs to be there for your friend who depends on you more and more. Soon, you’ll start staying an extra half hour then an hour and then 2 at work to just finish up and go the extra mile on the project. Won’t it feel good to have your boss say what a great job you did in front of everyone?
While it started out as your survival guide just helping you get by, now it’s becoming an addiction. Each raise, each encouraging word, each A+ becomes a hit, and you need more and more.
I’m definitely no stranger to perfectionism. I speak from experience. There have been times in my life that perfectionism has served me well –as a mom, as a later in life grad student, as a little girl from a divorced home. But there have also been times when the burden has been too heavy. When I went back to school in my late 30s, I found I couldn’t work the extra 3 hours to make an A++. I had kids that were sick sometimes and had the audacity to need stuff from me! I had a husband and friends who also wanted my time. I had my own mental and emotional needs, not to mention physical ones.
A wise client of mine was describing her own struggles as a perfectionist. We talked about a particular instance and how that felt in her body. She described it with her arms outstretched and said she felt like she was “fluttering away.” This stuck with me the next couple of days because it so accurately sums up the feeling. When you’re a perfectionist, your identity is so wrapped up in being perfect, that when you fail, it feels like pieces of you are “fluttering away” or unraveling.
So, what then? Where does that leave us? While, yes, sometimes I feel angry with perfectionism for demanding so much from me, I also have a part that’s thankful. Being perfect (or as close as I could get) helped me survive. It was the best way my young self could come up with to make my way in the world. It got me approval when I most needed it, attention, self-esteem. So, I have to say thank you.
But, now to my inner perfectionist I say “okay, you’ve done your job and done it well… thank you. I think I want to try just being me – regular, imperfect, flawed me and see what happens. I’ll let you know how it goes. Some days are better than others. Maybe perfectionism is becoming kind of heavy for you to carry, too. Join me if you want in trying to be messy, honest, and real and we can figure it out together."
I help with anxiety, depression, trauma AND perfectionism.