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The Unspoken Perils of Perfectionism

5 August 2015

A perfectionist leading a less-than-perfect life

As I prepare to wade through another semester of uni, I can't help but think about dreaded assignment deadlines. Anyone who knows me, knows that I'm a serial late submitter of assignments. Believe it or not, there was a time when I used to thrive on deadlines. They were the single best source of motivation for getting essays written up and handed in. If the deadline for an assignment wasn't less than three days away, there was probably close to zero chance I'd started on it. If the deadline was mere hours away, you could bet with near certainty that I was tapping away furiously at a keyboard.

As unhealthy as that seems, it was the only way I managed to override the constant fears and doubts that would whiz 'round my head as I worked on a piece of writing. Today, those very same fears and doubts are closer to having free reign over my mind.

I'm almost embarrassed or reluctant to mention my perfectionist tendencies because there's an assumption that perfectionists are high achievers, and so admitting you're a perfectionist is like telling the world that you're a high achiever and you know it. The reality can be far from that, and it's certainly not something I'd want to be tooting my own horn about.

I think the common picture of a perfectionist is someone who lives an orderly life; not an item (or strand of hair) out of place. Sure, there might be perfectionists who attest to that, but as a whole, perfectionism presents itself in many forms. Here are a few ways it influences my behaviour.

Procrastination and avoidance

It seems counterintuitive for perfectionists to be procrastinators, but the more you think about it, the more you can see how this comes about. Having incredibly high standards for your work and being afraid of making mistakes can leave you worried you won't be able to do things 'right'. I'll often tell myself that it's okay to put something off to the side because I'm not yet equipped with the knowledge or tools to complete it perfectly. And then I think, if I know it can't be perfect, why bother at all? The intense desire to produce a flawless piece of work is greater than the pressure of a deadline, and is perhaps best summed up by my insistence that failing to hand something in is better than handing in something mediocre.

Having beliefs like this can easily stop me from doing everyday tasks or learning new things. I delayed getting my driving licence for years because I knew I could never be as good at driving as others are. I rarely cook from scratch because my food will never taste as good as other people's. And even if it ends up tasting good, I'm not a natural cook and I'll never be a whiz in the kitchen. I gave up playing the piano so easily for someone who'd played for almost a decade. Why? Because I'd never be a maestro, and that was disappointing to me, as ridiculous as that might sound.

With essays, I've had others tell me to write a draft because having a draft is better than having nothing at all. The thing is, essay drafts don't exist in my mind, because I expect myself to be able to do it right the first time, every time. I edit myself as I go along because I can't bear the thought of things like spelling mistakes and shoddy syntax, which leads me to my next tendency.

Checking things excessively; difficulty making simple decisions

I constantly find myself agonising over trivial details, to the point where simple tasks take far longer than they should. Hanging the washing out to dry? Thirty minutes. Washing up a sink full of dishes? Forty-five. Writing up a blog post might take three hours when it could realistically take thirty minutes. Writing a simple email might take me thirty minutes when it should only take three. 

How do I start the email? Is 'hi' too casual? Is 'dear' too intense? Will they think I'm not appreciative if I only thank them once for contacting me? But will they think I'm overbearing if I thank them more than once? Do I start this next sentence in a new paragraph? Do I have too many paragraphs now? How the hell do I end this thing? Is 'regards' too basic or distant? Maybe 'kind regards' is better. Or 'warm regards!'. Yeah, people say that all the time. Oh, it's all too hard to decide. Maybe I should just use 'many thanks'. No, can't use that, I've already thanked them twice. Is twice too much? You know what? I'll just get rid of this email and start again! 

Now, do I start with 'hi' or 'dear'........

Hypercritical and a need to control things

I think I'm a terrible student, a terrible employee, and a terrible daughter. No one has ever said I'm any of those things, and logic tells me it's unlikely I'm a terrible everything, but there are times when I truly believe I don't deserve to have a place in uni, or to have a job, or to have parents as generous and caring as I do. 

But perhaps even worse than being critical of myself is being critical of those closest to me. At times, I think I can be unnecessarily harsh on my loved ones when they don't do things the way I think things should be done. I fail to remember that my way isn't the only 'right' way; there's more than one way to do things. I can get so pedantic and particular, so fixated on everything being a certain way -- I'm sure it stresses them out as much as it does me. I'm even wary to delegate tasks to anyone else for fear that they won't do the task justice, even though I'm rarely happy with my work either. It doesn't make sense.

Fearing the opinions of others

If I boiled perfectionism down to one single, overarching fear, it would be the fear of others thinking badly of me. For me, it's the crux of my perfectionism. It's what pushes me to behave the way I do. I absolutely can't stand the thought of anyone perceiving me in a negative light, which is pretty unreasonable when I think about it. It's basically a known fact that you can't possibly please everyone. Sure, you can try, but I know (even from the few years I've been on this world) that it only ends up making you unhappy, or feeling stuck in a life half-lived.

My worst fear in a classroom is putting my hand up to answer a question and getting it wrong. I can spend hours searching for gifts for friends' birthdays because I refuse to give them anything less than the 'perfect' present. I have great trouble saying no to people because I don't want them thinking I'm unwilling or ungenerous with my time or money. I live a life overshadowed by my unreachable expectations and what I think are the expectations of others, and it's tiresome. It's really, really tiresome.

* * * *

If any of these thoughts or behaviours are things you experience yourself, maybe you're dealing with perfectionism too. It's incredibly frustrating at times, both for me and for my family, but it's not unmanageable. My family is often left scratching their heads at all of my 'quirks'--we'll call it, so I find it helpful sitting down and explaining my thought processes to them. 

I know this post is long and quite personal, and that mental health is still sometimes considered a bit of a taboo topic, but I really don't think it should. If we routinely seek help for physical ailments, why shouldn't we also have the same concern for what goes on in our heads, and in the heads of those close to us? 

I'm thankful that even though being a perfectionist means dealing with persistent self-defeating, anxious thoughts, I'm still incredibly privileged to have a quality of life many others in this world don't get to have. Sure, I often wish I could just do things like 'normal' people can, but I'm optimistic that the more I learn about perfectionism, the closer I am to learning how to overcome its perils.

NB: If you're keen to read more about perfectionism, I think this PDF from AnxietyBC is a good place to start.

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