The Myth of Perfectionism
*looks around bashfully*
In my long absence from blogging I’ve been doing soul-searching. Doing a lot of thinking. A lot of day dreaming. And a lot of deep-dives into myself with the help of a therapist.
Something that has come through all of this, something about myself that I’ve never realized before, never had a name for is something my therapist calls paralyzing perfectionism.
When she first told me that I just had to laugh. Looking at my grades in school, my weight, the state of my room I would have never classified myself as any sort of perfectionist. Me? A perfectionist? No way. Shouldn’t perfectionists be…well, perfect?
Or at the very least approaching perfection y’know? Like one of those asymptotes that you look at in Calculus class. The kind that you know INTELLECTUALLY never actually touch the X-Axis but gosh darnit it get’s so close, even your Calculus teacher tells you to just just solve for X=0.
The more my therapist explained to me the more complex nature of perfectionism, though, the more I realized that we’ve become to romanticize the idea of it in society today–confusing it with high-achieving. After all, wasn’t “perfectionist” that the thing people fake-bashfully called themselves interviews when asked their greatest flaw? Wasn’t that thing that people off-handedly said when they turned in perfectly edited papers on shiny white paper that I always looked at with jealousy? And wasn’t that the thing that parents not humble-bragged about as their children brought home lines of As on report cards?
As I reflected, I came to understand that these stories of so-called “perfectionism” had turned the concept into this sort of cutesy way to refer to those annoyingly high achieving folks that I’d encountered throughout my life. And, in turn, yet another vision for myself that I couldn’t reach. And no framework within which to catalogue my own thoughts.
With this knowledge suddenly so many things came to light: those late nights in college staring at blank pages, my inability to clap at Cirque du Soleil performances, my constant struggles with my weight; and, even taking three months to finish a blog post…
For me, perfectionism at its heart is overwhelming fears of being “not ___ enough.” Unending criticism toward myself. Lofty high (often achievable) goals. An intense fear of doing/speaking/being wrong giving way to a fear of doing anything at all. Depression. And, a constant stream of negative thoughts and actions to punish myself for the things I perceive I lack.
Sure, at times these feelings have given way to actually achieving things. I’ve had my fair share of A’s on tests and projects, more than enough gold stars, certificates and random accolades. It’s sort of like how I imagine a gambling addiction persists: the times when you “win” offer the illusion that everything you’re doing is worth it. Because I’ve at times reached some semblance of “approaching perfection” all the negative thinking must be good, right?
As it turns out, not really. In fact, it’s kind of exhausting.
Even my attempts to dig deeper into the sources behind these thoughts are wrought with criticism–am I even doing therapy right?
Something that I’m meaning to try (and again, stop because I fear I won’t do it “right) is something I read about in this article. If you’re not in the mood to take click bait today, here’s the gist: make time to clear your mind of everything, don’t try to stuff your already-crowded mind with more thoughts, even the positive ones. I’m going to make a resolution: take some time every day (week, two-weeks) to just clear my mind of everything. No computer (because I’ll start trolling Facebook, longing for people’s “perfecter” lives and making fun of people who’ve gotten fat), no music (because I’ll try to sing along and get mad at myself if it isn’t right), no nothing. Perhaps in that space some better, less-perfectionistic thoughts will begin to emerge…
The next time you find yourself adopting or assigning the “perfectionist” label remind yourself that, like most things, the prevailing narrative around the concept is incomplete. For every top-10, 4.0, perfect-SAT person who might have the label, there’s probably another story of a girl like me, hiding more in the shadows, paralyzed by self-doubt. The first step, for myself and for others, is to recognizes the complexities and help to bring them to light.