So let’s talk about something that has ruled my life: perfectionism. And it hasn’t just ruled my life, it has made me sick.
Dictionary.com defines perfectionism as
Yep. That’s me. In my decades-long effort to cover up my own deep-seated feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, I became a mighty overachiever. Just like the definition says, I have been operating under the guise of having “high standards” and “high expectations” of myself my entire life, when in reality I’ve really just been working tremendously hard to avoid my fears and cover up my shame.
That’s it in a nutshell, but trust me, coming to that realization wasn’t easy, and it took a great deal of time and a lot of effort to get here.
Because first I had to get sick.
My battles with perfectionism are rooted in my early childhood. First of all, I happen to be the first-born child of three, and being the oldest endows me with an inalienable birth right to please my elders coupled with a strong need for approval from the adults who are in charge of me. Yippee.
Also, I am a girl. A girl who has been told countless times a day through decades of media that I need to look, act, and feel a certain way in order to be A) appealing to all men, B) happy, and the real kicker, C) worthy of the scrutiny of my fellow females. Through that assault alone, it’s no wonder that I and everyone like me ends up with a severe case of Never Measuring Up.
But we all learn at an early age that there are certain expectations of us, and we either measure up to them or we don’t. Perfectionism is just one way of dealing with those results, and because I was exceptionally good at it, it became my crack cocaine.
When I was just 3 years old, I started taking violin lessons. Two years later, I started playing the piano. As the daughter of musician parents with a lineage of musicians and music educators before them, my parents were eager to show off their precocious little talent to friends and family at dinner parties and family gatherings. There is no harm in that, in fact, ham that I am, I ate it up. Except that early on I learned that a great way to get attention was to show off what I could do.
But later, when I got older, I didn’t want to show off every time it was asked of me for a variety of reasons. Maybe I didn’t feel prepared at the time. Maybe I didn’t necessarily always like all the attention it got me. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. And that caused problems–not anything really overt, per se–but it instilled a sense in me that I was a disappointment. That by making a fuss over not wanting to perform, I was letting my parents, and my dad in particular, down.
In fact, my dad was one of the biggest perfectionists I have ever known, and because he placed high expectations upon himself in certain areas of his life, he was difficult to please. As the first-born child and only daughter, the very last thing I ever wanted to do was disappoint my dad, so I found ways to excel. Because if I excelled all the time, then maybe, just maybe he would love me all the time, too.
Now, I realize I need to stop here for a minute and explain. My dad was a great man in many ways, and I know he loved me very much, but for a lot of reasons he wasn’t always able to show it. He did the best he could, and he was often an amazingly loving father, but I lived with a lot of ambivalence. I didn’t always know that I was loved. Instead, I learned on some level that no matter what I did to please him, it was never going to be enough.
And maybe that’s the thing about parenting. Whether real or perceived, children all go through times when they don’t feel loved, and even worse, that they aren’t worthy of being loved. If it happens often enough, then certain coping mechanisms start to kick in.
And so, I went about my life pleasing my dad and my teachers and my grandparents and my classmates by overachieving in a desperate effort to prove my worth, while other symptoms of perfectionism started creeping in. I started getting terrible stomach aches with sudden bouts of diarrhea before recitals, tests, and presentations–which I now know were the early seeds of my Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. I became an acute procrastinator, never starting lengthy assignments until the night before they were due and pulling all-nighters for junior high science fair, for crying out loud. I adopted an all-or-nothing philosophy: If I knew I could excel at something then I would jump in with two feet. If not, I didn’t even want to try. And why? Fear of failure. A perfectionist can’t fail. She has to be perfect out of the gate.
Fast forward to five summers ago when my husband Mark and I were putting a plan into place to move from Utah to New Hampshire. We were looking for new adventures, a new work environment for Mark, and a chance to live even more simply closer to nature. As the skies opened up and the stars aligned one by one to make our dream come true, my IBS kicked into full gear. A couple of times I had to leave work because the diarrhea was so sudden and so bad, I couldn’t always make it to the bathroom in time. Some days I couldn’t even leave the house.
I saw a doctor, I had a colonoscopy, and all disease was ruled out. But I got an official diagnosis of IBS and was encouraged to reduce my stress. And while stress definitely was a factor in my diagnosis, I later realized that my perfectionism contributed a great deal as well. As we prepared to leave and the move became real much sooner than we thought it would, I started to feel guilty about the people we were leaving behind, including my hilarious brother; my mother who is not getting any younger; and our two beautiful, precious daughters; not to mention all of our wonderful friends and extended family. Again, the negative voice I alluded to in this post, was loud and strong. You call yourself a daughter? What good daughter would up and leave her mama like this, especially in her retirement years? How dare you abandon your girls! Who cares if their plans to follow you to the East coast fell through at the very last minute? Why aren’t you staying? How dare you, evil mother!
And that, my friends, is at the very heart of my particular brand of perfectionism. The loudest voice of all the voices that says, You are not worthy of happiness! Especially not the kind of happiness that you might choose.
In its strongest moments, that voice can bring me to my knees, making me crawl into a tight, useless ball of myself while I shrivel into a tiny, empty nothing. It has caused me to sleep in a closet, asked me to pass up all kinds of opportunities, closed me off to new experiences, made me question the love of those closest to me, sent me into bouts of crippling depression, and worst of all, perhaps, required me to become the someone I think I’m supposed to be, rather than the someone I really am.
That’s not to say that all of my behavior can be attributed to perfectionism. To be sure, I am an extremely motivated, somewhat intelligent, moderately talented, passionate extrovert who loves to be involved. BUT. It is that constant need to please others, to perform, to strive for value–that’s the stuff that gets in the way of my happiness.
There’s so much more to be said on perfectionism, including additional ways it can manifest itself and hopeful strategies for how to manage it. But for now it’s enough for you to know the origins of my own perfectionism so we can open it up to a wider discussion of perfectionism, and the role it plays in our lives.
Are you a perfectionist? Have you been able to identify where it comes from? How does it affect your life and the lives of those around you? Do you have health issues because of it? I’d love to hear anything you have to say on the matter, but only if you are comfortable sharing.
And friends, I’d love to give away a “Recovering Perfectionist” paper cut to one random commenter. If you aren’t comfortable talking about perfectionism, that’s OK. You would just need to leave a comment that says something like, “I’d love to win, Cath!” Just leave a comment by midnight EDT on Monday, August 17, and I’ll personalize it to the winner’s name. And my apologies, but only commenters with addresses in the US are eligible to win.
Thanks so much for joining me today.
Hi, my name is Cath, and I’m a recovering perfectionist,