Ah, Lovelies! Now I’ve caught up on all my bloggy thankyous this week, now I’m going to tackle the post which has been writing itself in my head for years. The post I’ve procrastinated about endlessly. The post which has done my head in, over and over, as I’ve tried to order my thoughts. The post for which I’ve bookmarked numerous posts from others’ blogs as ‘research’, something to back me up. It’s the lawyer in me. But today, I’m going to just write this one straight from the heart. So are you ready? My hands are shaking but let’s dive in!Hello, my friends. In doing a little 'behind the scenes' housekeeping, I've discovered that this post I wrote on 2 April 2011 mysteriously disappeared, along with all the interesting comments that you left. It was around the time Blogger was playing silly buggers with us - remember? Anyway, since this is one of my most important posts to me, written right from the heart, I hope you don't mind my re-publishing it today, just so it's back in its rightful place on the blog and I can refer to it in future posts if I wish. Okay? So here goes!
Would you believe I just spent about an hour trying to find the ‘perfect’ photo for this post? Hmmm…
What is a perfectionist?
The lawyer in me requires a definition.
a person who strives for or demands the highest standards of excellence in work etc
a person who believes in the doctrine of perfectionism
I also discovered a new word, atelophobia, which is ‘the fear of imperfection, of not being enough’. I suffer from that, too.
So, are any of you nodding out there? Is anyone thinking, “Yep. That’s me.”? I suspect I’m not alone but how did I become one and how does it affect my life?
How long have I been a perfectionist?
So, I ‘outed’ myself as a perfectionist to you all here. I suspect for many long-time Planetarians, it was hardly a surprise. For instance, you’ve probably noticed how rarely I have typos in my posts and if I find any, then I’ll correct them as soon as I’ve spotted them. You’ve probably noticed how often I post late at night, well past my bedtime, because I’ve spent hours perfecting a post.
But this isn’t a recently developed character trait. I’ve been like it for as long as I can remember – so that’s most of my 40 years. So is it nature or nurture which has led me there? A combination of both, I think.
I remember when I was very young how I always had to have everything arranged ‘just so’ and if it wasn’t, I’d fix it or if I couldn’t fix it, there would be tears. I remember in Grade 9 being absolutely fastidious about my straight hair being perfectly pulled back into a smooth ponytail with no lumps. And how a couple of classmates picked up on this and would tease me that I needed to straighten my hair. Instead of ignoring them, I would flee to the nearest mirror with my hairbrush to ‘rectify the problem’. I recall my best friend in her speech at my 21st birthday party teasing me about having always laid my schoolbooks at right angles on my desk. They’re only tiny recollections but symptomatic of a complete mode of behaviour which has dominated my life.
I recall a very sage teacher in Grade 11 explaining to me that perfection was impossible to achieve. I had received a 21/25 mark for an essay and had asked her what I could have done to get full marks. She said “Jane, I can’t answer that. Perfection is a myth. You’ll always be able to keep doing better at something. It’s a goal to work towards but something we can’t actually achieve”. I was stunned. How could that be the case? Why had no one ever told me that before? That little conversation never left me. But it didn’t change the way I thought, so ingrained was it in my psyche.
How has being a perfectionist affected my life?
This is a tricky one to answer. It has completely ruled almost every thought or action I have taken for most of my life. Until recently, I’ve known no other way to exist. It’s been my ‘norm’. Here are some of the ways it has manifested itself:
I have become completely paralysed about dealing with some issues, so worried am I that I won’t ‘get it right’.
I will go to great lengths to avoid having to do something, lest it be ‘imperfect’.
I’m a compulsive list-maker, always adding the extra details most people wouldn’t bother about. Let alone even think of.
I put myself under tremendous pressure to always push myself to achieve a higher standard than most people. ‘Near enough’ has never been ‘good enough’ for me.
I set myself impossibly high standards which I can never reach but I’ll still metaphorically ‘die in the attempt trying’ to reach them.
When I don’t reach those standards, I mentally beat myself up unmercifully. I can get really obsessed about my ‘failures’. To other people, they would probably be good results and something they’d be happy with. Not me.
How am I trying to overcome my perfectionism?
I’ve posted before about my struggles with depression and post-natal depression. Whilst living with depression is something I would never even wish on my worst enemy and I haven’t ‘enjoyed’ the experience, at least it’s put me in touch with skilled health professionals who have worked tirelessly with me over the past decade or so to address my perfectionism. They’ve helped me see that there is another way to live and that ‘lowering’ my standards and expectations is not a bad thing but in fact a healthy and sensible approach which can leave me much happier.
I now understand there are two types of perfectionism, adaptive and maladaptive.
Adaptive perfectionism can actually be a real asset to have. Its features are:
Ø You can experience satisfaction or pleasure from completing tasks.
Ø You can modify your standards to meet the situation’s demands.
Ø Your expectations and standards are realistic.
Ø You can strive for success.
Ø Your sense of self is independent of the successful completion of the task.
Ø You can initiate and complete tasks in a timely manner.
Ø You associate failure with some disappointment and then renew your efforts to try better.
Ø You have a desire to excel.
Maladaptive perfectionism has the following features:
Ø You can’t experience satisfaction or pleasure from completing tasks.
Ø You have inflexible, high and unrealistic standards.
Ø You fear failure.
Ø Your sense of self is closely aligned with successfully completing tasks.
Ø You procrastinate with initiating and completing tasks.
Ø Any failure to reach the high standards set results in harsh self-criticism and a loss of self-esteem.
Ø It leads to ‘compulsive’ tendencies and self-doubt.
So where to now for me?
Learning that distinction between the two forms has been very helpful. I have spent so many years struggling through with the maladaptive version. Only now am I finally realising that being a perfectionist can be a good thing so long as I set myself reasonable expectations and actually just ‘give things a go’. Sometimes I might be pleasantly surprised with the results. Sometimes I mightn’t. But at least I will have tried it out. We can’t all be good at everything all the time. But how richer my life will be for the attempt.
I posted here about my hopes for this year. One was to learn to ‘be kind to myself’. I’m still working out exactly what that means but I know it’s closely tied up with embracing the more positive type of perfectionism. I’m no spot-changing leopard – my perfectionism is intrinsically part of me. But I can choose to adopt the adaptive version to make my life happier. And realising that, my friends, is my huge breakthrough.
I am a huge fan of Tara Gentile at Scoutie Girl whose blog provides me with such life-affirming thoughts – do check it out for some goodness!
Whew! That was a long post but I’m relieved to finally have those thoughts out of my head. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Have any of you also been plagued by the negative side of perfectionism? Have any of you worked through it yourselves or have you been helped by others? Do share – let’s support each other in our life journeys!