I was one of those kids who organized and arranged toys in a specific way, who sorted marbles by color, and who could spend hours rolling and shaping the perfect dough strips to cover the apple pie.
In the 20 years that followed, nothing changed. At university, only straight A’s were acceptable and even then, I kept thinking that I might have missed something and could have done better, or that the professor made a mistake. I spent countless nights studying and neatly highlighting sentences until basically every page of the book had turned yellow and was deemed important. The conviction, “It’s not good enough” kept me refining and editing my papers, and if I made one tiny mistake like a misspelling or a simple typo, I’d just rip out the page and start all over again.
It just needed to be perfect.
I felt that I needed to get things right and have everything organized or else, I’d be out of control, stressed and overwhelmed.
I believed that if I did what I thought was expected of me and excel in everything I did, I would be happy and more importantly, accepted by others. In reality, perfectionism was depleting my sense of self-esteem and self-worth. I had created all these rules in my mind on how to act, and I ended up being as good or bad as my recent accomplishment or failure.
My perfectionism held me captive and was draining my energy, constraining my happiness and killing my relationships.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized perfectionism is nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid criticism, rejection, and feelings of pain and shame. And that I’m not the exception, but that we all struggle with perfectionism at some point or another. We feel we need to be the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect wife, or the perfect employee. We do anything in our desperate attempts to be perceived as being perfect by others, even though there is no way to control perception.
As long as we strive to be perfect, we will be happy and we won’t get hurt. At least, that’s what we think…
It’s an illusion, a self-destructive and dangerous mechanism because perfection doesn’t exist. Instead of creating a great life, all that perfectionism does is preventing us from a great life being created in the first place. Perfectionism is really the Darth Vader of our own minds.
According to Brené Brown – research professor, author, public speaker and recovering perfectionist – perfectionism is addictive. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brown wrote:
“Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough so rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.”
To overcome perfectionism, we first need to acknowledge that the desire for love, acceptance and worthiness are universal needs, and that perfectionism is fueled by our fears of not being loved, accepted or good enough. It’s our mechanism used to protect ourselves from feelings of pain, criticism, and shame. We need to acknowledge and accept that the feelings we’re trying to avoid are universal human experiences and inevitably, part of life.
Instead of avoiding them, we need to surrender to our painful feelings and to build a strong foundation of self-compassion and self-love to move through them.
When we use compassion and love to navigate through life, rather than avoidance, we can begin to embrace our messy, imperfect self and allow the seeds of true authenticity.