A few years ago, my mum was helping me in the kitchen preparing for a party I was throwing. I was having a minor hissy fit, stressing over how the day would go, at which point my mum tried to reassure me with “It will all be fine“. My immediate reaction was to snap back “I don’t do fine.”
And back then, I seriously Did Not Do Fine. Fine was not good enough, only perfect would suffice. If perfectionism was an Olympic sport, then I would have been Usain Bolt. You see, I am a recovering perfectionist and my recovery has been slow and somewhat imperfect.
Perfectionism is an irrational belief that everything in life must be done with no deviation from how things are “supposed to be”. No mistakes, no weakness, no failure, no if’s or but’s. There is perfect, or there is worthless; there are no shades of grey. Who makes up the rules as to how things are “supposed to be” is never quite clear, but deviation from them is perilous for the perfectionist.
Perfectionism is an enormous burden, like a lead box filled with heavy wooden masks strapped to your back. You select the appropriate mask for the occasion – the perfect mummy, the perfect wife, the perfect colleague, the perfect hostess, the perfect daughter, the perfect friend. But the weight of these masks of perfection oppresses your true authentic self to the point where you cannot even remember what lies underneath them.
And even although in your rational mind you understand the futility of chasing the illusion of perfection, still you are compelled, because it is the achievement of the ideal that gives meaning to your life. If only you could meet your own expectations, then you would be good enough.
But of course, you will never be good enough. Because that is the other thing about perfection – it could always have been better. For perfectionists, even perfect is not perfect enough; you could always have done it faster or straighter or with more pizzaz, or standing on your head while spinning plates and playing the ukulele. That voice in your head will never let up and will never be satisfied. The constant striving for the unattainable sucks the joy out of every task and leaves you frustrated and chronically dissatisfied with yourself and your life. Sometimes you don’t even bother trying, because if you can’t do it perfectly then what would be the point?
But what if good enough really could be good enough? What if you are actually human after all? What if you could apply the same standards you apply to everyone else to yourself? Would you recognise yourself anymore? Would hell freeze over? Would those who love you stop doing so?
For me, the first step in getting myself down off my superhuman pedestal was to accept that I had a choice in what I expected of myself. Although it seemed almost automatic and without conscious thought, I was choosing to subject myself to the enormous pressure of perfection. The reasons I was choosing this are deep-seated, but the simple realisation, after many years, that it was within my power to choose differently was a revelation. So I started to make different choices and view myself through a different lens and guess what – hell didn’t freeze over and my loved ones still love me. It is not easy and I am still a work in progress, but life is lighter and filled with more joy now that perfection is not a full-time preoccupation.
Striving for the perfectly imperfect version of myself.
What about you? Are you burdened with the perfectionist gene? How have you overcome your need for perfection? Share your wisdom and comment below.