(Part one of a two part series on the plight of perfectionism)
I’m not perfect. I don’t even want to be perfect. I just want to be good. Not well-behaved good. Good as in good at. That doesn’t sound unreasonable, does it?
From the outside looking in, I look like I’ve got a good life. And I have. Late 40’s. Single. No kids. Smart. Good career. Financially independent. Taking six months off work and trying new stuff. Interesting stuff. Creative stuff. Things I was good at when I was young but that somehow dropped by the wayside while my life evolved. Lots and lots and lots of freedom. Yeah, I know. I’m pretty lucky.
Six weeks ago, late morning, I had a panic attack. In a couple of breaths I went from breathing normally to breathing too fast, and too shallowly, straight from the top of my chest. I began to sweat. It was scary but this was not my first panic attack so I knew what to do.
That evening I sat with my iPad, feeling incapable of pushing the send button on an email. Crying. When I read an encouraging email, the crying turned to sobbing. I shut everything down. The iPad. Myself. And just let go. Here’s how kind I was to myself: You can’t do this. You’re delusional if you think you can write, let alone potentially write for a living. No-one is interested in what you’ve got to say. You’re self-obsessed. You’re not good enough at writing. You’re not good enough, full-stop.
All I had done that morning was pick up a pen and a pad to start some writing. Let me tell you, life isn’t perfect for a perfectionist.
Perfectionism is a personality trait. A lot of people, including myself, have it. It is quite a struggle to live with and, consequently, I have read a lot about it. It is not 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.
For example, perfectionism could look like this. A perfectionist who thinks he or she is carrying a few extra pounds might set a weight loss aim with a supermodel body as their goal.
Perfectionists who decide they need to be fitter might target the fitness capability of a high performance athlete.
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.
This is the exact opposite of what they crave which is, according to researcher and author Brené Brown, to feel approved of and accepted. Yet despite this desire for acceptance, the behaviour of perfectionists tends towards withdrawal from socialising as they struggle with a sense that they may fall short in some way.
Unsurprisingly then, perfectionism doesn’t perform well on a happiness scale. Research has linked it to depression, anger, worry and anxiety. And it is, unfortunately, possible for anyone to develop the trait. The consensus is that its development is the result of childhood experiences. But everyone grows up with their own subset of life experiences and yet not everyone becomes a perfectionist.
So, is the development of the perfectionist trait possible to avoid? In my opinion, probably not. The complexity of human individuality is such that there must be many thousands of possible combinations of personality plus experience that are capable of creating different outcomes. Because ultimately, the behaviour that might cause the development of perfectionism appears to be very innocent and very human behaviour.
Throughout life we routinely see good being rewarded, bad being punished. We see people modelling behaviour, unknowingly setting examples. And we are surrounded by an abundance of information. Be it right or wrong, it has the effect of telling us what is right and what is acceptable.
The simplest of examples: when your parents were pleased by your school report, you felt proud. Wasn’t it normal that they were proud of your achievements? And didn’t you want them to be? And what’s wrong with discussing your lower scores and what you thought you could do to improve them? This is a basic life event.
Such an innocent and short-lived exchange but one which is incredibly influential. From this you learned that good scores received good attention and might result in a reward. Bad results got attention too, just not the attention you liked. The message that you hadn’t done well enough, for those with perfectionist tendencies, converted into the message that you were not good enough. And so you worked harder only to deliver good results.
(Mary Ellis is a pseudonym)