Notes from a Recovering Perfectionist

I am was a perfectionist. I’m currently in recovery.

A perfectionist is someone who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. It’s a personality trait characterized by a “person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations” [Wiki]. It was hard for me to make small decisions, I revisited conversations from months before, I debated whether something was ever finished. Choosing a major in college was nearly debilitating because I was interested in everything and I didn’t want to be stuck with the wrong one. I worried that my major carried a huge responsibility and I wasn’t sure if I would get a job after graduation, depending on my chosen area of study.

  • My perfectionism allowed no room for mistakes. When I saw an error, I was the first to jump and correct it. I hated when I did something slightly off, and forget about getting something completely wrong. I was down for the count when that happened.
  • I had to do things in a very specific manner. In other words, I had routines that had to be fulfilled. For example, my bed had to be made a certain way, and if it wasn’t, I would remake it before climbing into it at night. I didn’t ask other people to follow my punitive rules, but I held myself to an unwieldy standard.
  • Of course I utilized an all-or-nothing approach. If I could not do it perfectly, I had the mind of why bother? My thinking was black-and-white.
  • Worst of all, though, was the fact that I was extremely hard on myself.  When something went wrong, I was angry and frustrated with myself. It mattered not if something was my fault, I had a tendency to beat myself up and ruminate on it for a long time.

Over the course of many years in therapy, I tried to curtail some of the perfectionism that disabled me from moving forward. Talking through what it was, why I was like that, when it started was helpful in that it gave me insight about my personality and process. But, all that awareness didn’t help me change. I noticed growth and progress when new problems would pop up and I didn’t shoulder all the responsibility, just some of it.

Admittedly, a big part of my perfectionism is due to a personal love affair with improving myself and giving my all to the things and people I’m passionate about. I believe in setting myself up for success and working hard to achieve the goal. This, however, is not always possible, and there are occasional barriers to perfection, like when others have a different plan in mind or can’t be predicted.

Another aspect to my perfectionism is that I have been like this since Kindergarten. My teacher called my parents in for a conference when I was five years old and suggested they stop putting so much academic pressure on me. My parents rebutted that they were lackadaisical about my “grades” in Kindergarten and I put the pressure on myself. The teacher stated she’d never seen a student so hard on herself at such a young age, and my parents encouraged me to try new things and make mistakes. Even then, I was challenged by not doing something perfectly.

Perfectionism has some benefits. It makes musicians, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs stick to their vision. We have great taste. We don’t settle. We are persistent and never take no for an answer. We find workarounds and special ways to get things done.

img_2430-2Despite these benefits, I wanted to relinquish some of my perfectionism for a long time. My Life Coach and I established that my perfectionism was preventing me from moving forward. It kept me spinning my wheels. We talked about being extraordinary and ordinary. I thought extraordinary people were leaders who were admired. I believed being extraordinary meant that I was achieving more. It seemed like being ordinary was synonymous with mediocrity, living a boring life, or being vanilla. Staying extraordinary meant keeping my edge, being unique, creative, different. I could not bear the thought of being normal or ordinary.

But my Coach suggested that everyone has extraordinary and ordinary aspects in their personalities. She encouraged me to try on the ordinary hat for a week, which to me meant: going with the flow, not shouldering responsibility for other people’s problems, and accepting that I could make mistakes. I had always believed that making a mistake meant I was a horrible person. Rather, a mistake could be taken at face value and it was simply an error. What a novel concept!

So I tried being ordinary for a week.

And what happened? I felt lighter. I didn’t have so much pressure to be perfect. I walked down the street and managed to keep my style, but without the insecurity of trying so hard. It was miraculous. I noticed I got more done, and my work improved. Instead of wanting to appear brilliant and come up with the best Coaching interventions for my clients, I was more authentic, more honest. My writing included the real me, rather than a pithy air that didn’t feel like me. I liked myself better.

I’m still in perfectionist recovery. I probably always will be. Join me in an upcoming post about what  I do when feeling like I’m being pulled back in.

My last two blog posts got great feedback. This one asks Why is it so hard to apologize? and this post is all about the end of some friendships.

To work with me, please visit my website, Coaching By Nina Rubin, or send me an email.

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