Why Perfectionism Made Me So Unhappy
Perfectionism, in my opinion, is frequently misunderstood. Many people think that a perfectionist is just someone who has color-coded planners or follows all the rules. They can’t observe the self-criticism and constant disappointment lurking in a perfectionist’s deepest thoughts. Perfectionists make the best task-doers, but often, they are the most unhappy.
Perfectionism was addicting for me because the closer I got to my goals, the faster I ran. I didn’t want to be perfect. I was far too particular to believe I could actually be perfect. But I convinced myself that being better was possible. I masked perfectionism in the guise of healthy striving. I seized that up and sprinted, but I never let myself make it. I kept redrawing the finish line every time I got close. The improvements I did make became a new normal that was instantly not good enough.
The funny thing about incessantly elevating my expectations was that eventually, I hit a wall. There was nowhere left to run. I tried jogging in place to keep my momentum going, but I cracked. A new reality bore down upon me, a reality where I had to surrender control and accept that I would fail–frequently. I realized that the « motivation » I thought I had was really toxic perfectionism.
Perfectionism and Shame
Brené Brown has said, « When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun, and fear is the annoying backseat driver. » For my entire life, I had been swimming in oceans of shame, motivated by a deathly fear of failure. I hated myself, and I never felt good when I reached my goals. Instead, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t set a more challenging benchmark. Mistakenly, I thought that being better would help me feel happier, but it turned out that perfectionism only numbed what I was feeling. I wanted to live free from its bonds.
So I started trying to fail. Yes, you read that correctly. There was, to me, a way to do failure « right. » Up to this point, I had avoided things that reeked of failure and only done what I could excel at. But, being the perfectionist I was, I squared up to the challenge–mastering the art of failure was the only way to get over it, right?
Unfortunately, failure was a lot messier than I wanted it to be. I couldn’t stand failing at failing. I wanted to fail gracefully, to fail perfectly, and I couldn’t do that. Do you see it? The perfectionism hadn’t gone anywhere. Where I had previously criticized myself for failing, I then criticized myself for not failing perfectly.
How to Let Go of Perfectionism
It’s difficult for me to part ways with perfectionism and let more balanced goals make a home in me. Making plans and executing them to the smallest detail–that was who I was. Or at least who I thought I was. As it turns out, I can channel some of the motivation I have from my years of experience as a perfectionist into good things.
When I set goals, I ask myself I am capable of reaching them. If I’m not capable (for example, if I’m sick or have a lot of other responsibilities), then I adjust my expectations to make them more reachable. If I feel like I am capable, I still consider adjusting my expectations to take « life » into account. As it turns out, going the extra mile is just that–extra. You can do only what is required and still feel satisfied with your work.
If you’re new at this, you might feel the burning desire to let go of perfectionism in a snap. Please adjust your expectations–this takes years of practice. I’d recommend starting small, like telling yourself each morning, « I am not what I do. » Kindly talk back to perfectionist thoughts when they creep in. Laugh when something embarrassing happens to you. Reach out to a loved one to talk about the shame you feel when something strays from your plan. Accept that sometimes things are out of your control. And most importantly, don’t get discouraged if you ease back into old perfectionist habits.