The Plight of Perfectionism – (part two)

Perfectionism is a personality trait, wrote Mary Ellis  on  Kiwiboomers earlier this month.

It is not, she added, the same as striving for excellence or having high standards:

 Perfectionists set themselves unachievable standards and sometimes unnecessary standards; standards in areas of their life where standards are superfluous.  And they measure their entire worth against their accomplishment to these standards   Their own worst critics, perfectionists live with a heightened sensitivity as to how they are perceived by others. Add to this the act of setting impossible goals and there is only one result:  Perfectionists fail.  And the act of failing leads them to define themselves as failures, leaving them feeling unacceptable and unworthy. 

Despite being long aware that I had perfectionist tendencies, I hadn’t been particularly concerned.  I didn’t think it was having too much of an impact on my life.  I put my tendency to preferring time alone down to being an introvert and my self-derogatory thinking down to being a quirk of my personality.

However the catalyst to recognise the extent of my perfectionist streak occurred during a period of major change in my work.  It was at this point that I recognised that my perfectionism had escalated.  My work had become my identity, the one thing I felt really good at.  As a result (and I’m embarrassed to admit it), pretty much the only thing I did outside of run-of-the-mill family and social interactions.  Not much in the way of hobbies.

OK, none.  But work made me feel valuable and worth something.  I worked hard. I was recognised.  Then I worked too hard and work lost its gloss.  As a result, I started imagining a different lifestyle, a life refocused toward the things I enjoyed.

I contemplated the things I did purely for pleasure – and realised I couldn’t name one.  I was struck by how truly narrow my life was, by how I had limited the things that I  would try in fear I would not be good at them.  But I didn’t know what to do about it.  I didn’t know the answer to the question:  How can I live a less draining life?

Several months later, that question remaining unanswered, work finally ended.  I thought it was a good opportunity, time to take a break and to challenge myself to try something new.  I started writing.  And so began the panic attacks.

I’ve almost given up writing several times.  This was to be the thing that I would do for pleasure and yet it has been causing significant stress.   I’ve told myself I don’t have to do it and almost convinced myself that giving up was a healthy decision.

However, having read several books on the trait, I realised that giving up is what many perfectionists do to avoid that event called failure.  In my gut, I knew that I was at a junction.  I realised that, to move forward, I had to face the possibility of failing and the fear of looking foolish – feelings we perfectionists do not like.

Because if I did nothing different, I would continue to struggle each and every day.  But if I had the strength to push myself to confront my trait and learn skills to moderate it, I had hope of a future lived with more ease.

And so, to write of this is an act of self-defence.  Others have told me it’s brave but in truth, it is driven by desperation.  The feelings generated by constant failure and self-flagellation aren’t conducive to happiness.  I want to struggle less and to be happy more, and to achieve this, striking out against the worst aspects of my perfectionism is absolutely essential to me.

Could I have chosen anything more difficult for a perfectionist to do than to show some of my true self on the written page?  That you will see the turmoil of my imperfect thinking embarrasses and frightens me.  I confess to feeling foolish, less of a person.  I’m worried about being judged and found wanting.  And of appearing self-obsessed.

And yet, I know with confidence that I am none of these things.  I am simply struggling with this personality trait.  I’m not perfect.  I don’t even want to be perfect.  And I no longer aim to be good at – because I have realised that those two small words hold the essence of my perfectionism.  The meaning they hold for me has been strong enough to cause unwarranted levels of fear and to limit the enjoyment taken from living.

Instead I aim to do the things that scare me.  Not bungy-jumping scared – which I believe is an entirely healthy fear.  Just the unhealthy type of scared that I now know is perfectionism.  It isn’t easy.  But I am confident that, one day, it may be, well – easier.

©  Mary Ellis, (nom de plume) 2017

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Mary Ellis is a successful professional but has always wanted to write. This is one of her first stories as a freelance writer.