My Wrestle with Perfectionism

I’ve really wanted to take a spin class. I see it going on every day I’m at the gym. It looks so fun and like a great work out, but I’m so intimidated. My first thought is after I buy a bike at home, study it up, and become a perfect cyclist I will take a spin class. After all, class isn’t for learning, but showing how perfect you are… right?

This piece has been hard to write, proof that this is something I’m aggressively wrestling with. It’s been exhausting, and I’ve considered tabling it indefinitely. But there’s this itch about it, a persisting nag. I need to get this flushed out, half for me and half because I know so many of us are plagued by this. Even worse, some of us are really proud of it. I catch myself feeling that way too, but I know now that feeling that way just feeds into the illusion, the addiction.

I’m a perfectionist

You may agree or disagree about the severity of being a perfectionist. I’ll admit, in the museum of afflictions and addictions it’s the prettiest one, the easiest to look at (so long as you don’t look hard). In fact half the time people even wonder if it’s really an issue. I’m absolutely serious on this one. Perfectionism will wrap its pretty arms around you and slowly take your breath away until you are left gasping for air.

Is it really that bad though? Yes, it really is. It may start and largely function in “harmless” ways and the damage done may seem insignificant initially. “It’s a means to an end.” “It helps get stuff done.” “It’s a form of quality control.” Sure, perfectionism can do all these things, but it’s a short term game. In a moment, perfectionism can seem like a tool, a rope to climb a mountain. Buyer beware because with each pull you wrap yourself tighter until your breath is snuffed out. Perfectionism is like a stealthy cancer that slowly and quietly multiplies in the background, until it has metastasized out of control. In its extreme, perfectionism can cultivate environments where abuse of all sorts can flourish like a disease.

Insert HUGE caveat here. There is a big BIG difference between being a hard worker and being a perfectionist: one functions in reality and the other is never satisfied. Brené Brown has great stuff on perfectionism, and one thing she points out is that perfectionism is not healthy striving. My dad has one of those “demotivational” posters hanging in his office that serves as a good metaphor for perfectionism. Beneath the picture of a runner sprinting on a hot strip of desert pavement reads “Quality: it’s not a marathon, but more of a death march.” The perfectionist after all never “arrives” since there was always something that could’ve been better.

I’m Not Really a Perfectionist Though… Am I?

Perfectionism can look different for everyone. My mix may be different than your particular blend of perfectionism. I may have body image and parenting fears and you may have work product and provider role based fears. There are things that may fiercely trigger it in me that don’t really come on your radar. But regardless of your “brand” there are some common threads between them all.

Ask yourself some questions and answer honestly.

Does your worth stem from what you do?

Do you go to either extreme of actively seeking critique or being highly offended by feedback?

Do you fret over details?

Are you anxious when you think of what others will think?

Do you see things in “black and white”?

Do you hesitate to try something completely new?

Are you frequently sizing people up?

Do you struggle to delegate assignments?

Do you micromanage others?

After finishing something, do you think of what went wrong first and focus on that?

If you answered a lot of these with yes, then it might be safe to say you’re part of clan perfectionist. (Don’t worry, I’m here too.) This doesn’t have to be your reality though. You don’t have to live in the anxiety ridden death run. There’s not a “one trick” or “fast easy tips” for ending perfectionism, but perhaps what I can offer are some guiding points that have helped me navigate my way into awareness and towards more meaningful living.

Expectations and Relationships

“I just have REALLY high standards for what I expect from myself.” Hey, I am a big fan of standards and expectations, they keep society pretty safe. But when we maintain expectations that border on unrealistic we not only set ourselves up for perpetual disappointment, but we also contribute to an atmosphere that suffocates those around us.

Perfectionism is a mismatch of desires and choices. In my life the things I become a perfectionist on usually stem from an ultimate desire to be loved and accepted. Ironically though, that action doesn’t foster deep meaningful relationships. For example, when I am meeting new people I spend an inordinate amount of time on my hair and outfit. I want to look like I have it all and I do it all without breaking a sweat. What does that do? Do people flock and say “Oh my gosh, I completely love and accept you. We can share meaningful vulnerable space together.” Or do they say “I’m not good enough, I can’t relate to that.” It’s usually the last one.

As a new mom, I really really struggled with perfectionism, and many women do. I wanted to look like having a baby was easy, being a parent came naturally, and my baby fell out of heaven. After a particularly awful turn of events and a call to Poison Control, drowning in my shame I burst out to a neighbor about what had happened. She looked at me and laughed lovingly. “Yeah? I had to call a few weeks ago.” Instantly I felt better, I wasn’t alone. I had permission to struggle too. We became really close friends after that. Vulnerability brings deeper relationships while perfectionism is a recipe for isolation.

We need to check our expectations and the messages they send. Is what you expect of yourself the same as what you would expect of someone you love? If you are expecting more of yourself, you need to check the expectation. If you are expecting less you need to check your personal accountability.

The Enemy of Done

My first couple drafts of this were pretty gnarly. I had to stop writing several times because I had sent myself into a spiral of shame, or ironically, had aggressively activated my perfectionism. “I have to perfectly articulate this so that they can see that I struggle with this, but simultaneously look good doing it.” Hahaha… oh someone please help me.

If it’s not the fear of having a less than perfect article published, then it’s the fear of some troll crawling out from the woodwork and exposing me as a phony. My ever patient and ever encouraging husband is always quick to remind me that I’m not writing for the critic. I only give them power when I give into my perfectionism. If I have permission to put forth a good effort, then the fingers that point are not justified. After all, I put myself out there and I was in my arena.

One phrase that changed my whole self-talk, again from Brené Brown, is that perfection is the enemy of done. I have the capacity to do a lot of good, but only if I go out there and do it. Every article I write is better than the article that I’m too terrified to publish, convinced it’s just not enough.

Holding Space for Myself

My goal is to hold a safe space for others, a place where they can be vulnerable without harsh judgment or cruel critique.  But I struggle to hold a safe space for myself. People can say mean things, and it hurts when they do, but tragically it’s my own voice inside that is dealing out the toxic blows regularly. We all do it and we need to change.

This article is allowed to be as imperfect as it needs to be. Critics may come, they’re already here inside of me, but I need to remember that I have permission to be enough and to protect myself from anyone that would say otherwise. I am allowed to carefully curate the space where I let people be a part of my life and influence me, be that media I consume or relationships I engage.

I am worth cultivating and protecting. This is what motivates my decisions regarding what I purchase, what relationships I am more vulnerable in than others, because perfectionism is contagious. There is always something out there, person or billboard, ready to educate you in the “should” of the world.

This is an everyday effort for me. Sometimes it’s exhausting and overwhelming. When I think back to where I was and how smothered I felt I’m grateful for my growth. Little bits of progress turns into mountains climbed over the years. And you know what? I took my first spin class yesterday and it was amazing.