Monday, 24 October 2011

My life as a perfectionist: the repeat version

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!
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!

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.

perfectionist  (pəˈfɛkʃənɪst) 
— n
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!


  1. I think I remember reading that post Jane. It is one of those important reminder!Hard to accept that "failure" is part of the process of growing learning...I can be my worse enemy at times while being so hard with myself, sometimes I need to remind myself to treat myself like I would treat my friend...But it is a long process :) xx

  2. Hi strikes me that 'perfect' is only subjective. What is perfect for one person, may not be for another. Are you trying to please everyone or only yourself..or some people..your family for instance? I don't think there is harm in setting a standard, as long as it involves the journey to that place as being possible and joyful. There needs to be an outworking of the fruit of love, joy and peace involved in the attainment and the journey at least at certain points. If not, maybe it is the wrong path that is being travelled upon.

  3. Ah, how true. This post really resonates with me I'm a fellow perfectionist and I get really obsessed and bogged down with detail, list making and avoiding failure. I probably write at least 1 or 2 lists per day and almost kill myself to get everything ticked off within a given timeframe. I'm also a chronic worrier which has gotten worse in my 30's. I am also ashamed to admit I regularly work myself into a stressful state (and accompanying grouchiness) by worrying about 'what ifs'.
    Being in a profession where attention to detail and strict statutory timeframes and processes doesn't help - or maybe it's why I work in the field I do.
    My husband is the complete opposite which is mostly a good thing. Talk about the odd couple!
    However, as a lifelong perfectionist, where do I draw the line between being complacent and giving myself such a hard time over things that just don't matter? I keep reminding myself that life is not a dress rehearsal.
    Speaking of worrying, fussing and list making, we're in the process of moving house at the moment and let me tell you - moving house twice in a month (out of our house, into a rental and then into a new house) with a toddler, 2 cats, a dog and juggling 3 jobs without having any leave to spare and doing the packing and moving ourselves, is starting to push me into throwing my hands in the air and saying "That'll do!" Maybe I won't be such a fusspot and perfectionist after this?
    Great post Jane, as usual a lovely way to finish off my day.
    Hope you're going OK. I was thinking of you today and wondering how you are. Your posts about your family in the last few months have reminded me again of what it is like to lose someone you dearly love. All I can say my friend, is that the hole in your heart does get easier to live with.

    With love and a hug

  4. What an amazing post Jane, really well written and thought out :)

    I am not a perfectionist.....thankfully! I think it must be extremely hard because, as you so rightly say, perfect is mostly not achievable simply because as a perfectionist, you always think there is something you could have improved on. That would drive me mad!!

    I certainly like to challenge myself but also know when I have done my absolute best and I can be happy with that.

    Love to you Jane xx

  5. I am SURE I've read this post- I was so moved by it that I recall sending you a long email about my mum being so similar etc...

    Do you recall that?
    Incredible words from a wise woman my friend...

    Melissa xxx

    Any post there yet?

  6. Being a Virgo, I have those same tendencies you speak of here Jane. I can often get myself into a ruffle if things don't go according to plan. There are also certain areas in my life where I would like things to be just so... and when they're not, again I can often lose my cool. I am learning (slowly slowly) that there is NO such thing as perfection and to just be satisfied with doing my best at everything I undertake... I guess doing our best is a form of perfection anyway. Well done for actually tackling these feelings Jane, they are quite enormous to comprehend xo

  7. This. Was. The. Best. Post. A-M xx

  8. [In response to Melissa's comment above, I found this old comment of hers I had salted away!]

    Incredible post Jane....I have lived a long time with my mothers *perfectionist qualities* playing a big role in my life......her & I, in this regard, are quite different!

    I have a true desire to have a wonderful, happy, fulfilled life emotionally, physically, spiritually, creatively and visually....and these things...the striving for these brings, brings me great pleasure...

    I did for a very long time, wonder why I also didn't feel the responsibility of achieving these things in the way my mother did.

    Her emotional state didn't rest so much on enjoying these goals, but more on ticking these goals off her mental personal list...and only after this very obvious recognition of them did she actually take a moment to enjoy them!

    I think I almost go to the other extreme to stop & enjoy the here and now, what ever the outcome of my goals , because I have seen how much has gone by her unnoticed if it wasn't to her high standards.

    I actually can't recall the last time I saw her just S.T.O.P and relax!

    I adore her and wish that she would see her worth no matter how little she is's the small moments after all that make a life...

    So everything you are doing to enjoy those moments of non-perfect time for your kids, I can tell you from "the child's" perspective , make you a wonderful mum.

  9. [Oh, and here's another old comment I had saved from Bron at Maxabella Loves!]

    Wow, Jane. What an amazing insight into a completely foreign world for me. I admire your courage to delve so deep into something that many may not even recognise as a problem. I know I could use a bit more of the perfectionist in me from time to time, so I guess I focus on it as a good thing more than a bad. I do know that I have lived with perfectionists from time to time and they can be hard work. They can be either difficult to please or otherwise prone to complete shutdown because to begin the overwhelming job of being perfect must be very difficult indeed. Best wishes for getting to the bottom of your own perfectionism. It can only do you good. x

  10. [And another from Vicki Archer - I don't keep every email I receive, BTW ☺]

    As one 'perfectionist' to another...I believe that we must take the good that comes from that state and channel it into the creative and the practical. Perfectionism, the good kind, is there to be used to our advantage. I think that the older we get the easier it is to understand this compulsion, the easier it is to be kind to ourselves and the easier it is to make it work for us...Remember one person's idea of perfection is another's idea of chaos....xv

  11. Oh, I'm so delighted at all your varied and insightful responses. Some of you have struggled like me whilst others have avoided this trap. Thankyou for sharing your experiences so openly.

    Danielle, I'd love to email you but can't find your address. If you read this comment, would you mind emailing me? Thanks

    J x

  12. I'm a recovering perfectionist who still has a few maladaptive tendencies. I'm also a Virgo, like Mama of 2 Boys. I wonder if there is anything in that? Since having children and 'crashing' I've learned to let go of things a bit more. I still have stupidly high standards, but the world doesn't end if I don't reach them. Right now for example I'm quite happy ignoring the disaster zone that is my house after CrashBoy's escapades this morning!

    Great post Jane. I look foward to reading more.

    Laney x

  13. Oh Laney. What is it about us Virgos?! You, Julie, me - we need to form a support society! Keep on keeping on, my friend - you're doing beautifully. J x

  14. Funny how some people have found that by having children it's driven them one way or the other, perfection = control maybe?? To me, seeing an obese person insist on fiddling on something & saying they are "a perfectionist" bloggles my mind as clearly, they are not perfect, they are unhealthy & making bad choices. Do you know what i mean?? Perfection?? In what part of your life exactly?? The perfect wedding run by Bridezilla, that is hardly perfect to anyone watching or in her path!! I've never been a perfectionist as i was raised with "you did your best & we love you" & that is the healthiest way ever, purely as i'm not being judged on my ability but my attitude & zest for trying. This is how i raise my 4 children, lots of love & comfort, it's just a bonus they are all smart, class captains & sports champions, just like me but who cares about any of that, if they don't have a gracious attitude about winning & beautiful nature about their success?? They'll crash if they don't win - i have twins too, constantly competeting with each other on the race track, they take it in turns, by ability, it just works out that way but it's confronting when you realise, once & for all, your twins are in direct competition with each other. Great post Jane, love Posie

  15. Ah Jennie, so much food for thought, as usual! J x

  16. Hi Jane...I didn't think I started as a perfectionist..though looking back now, I see the signs were there (a camping trip when I was 10 and insisted on putting a vase of fresh flowers I had picked on the table..etc, etc...). As I grew up and had some 'real life' experiences...relationships, money worries, I think I used my ability to control my environment (i.e. insanely tidy house) to compensate for the lack of control I had in other areas of my life (not so nice boyfriends). Reading your thoughts has made me realise how crazy we are to expect we can keep this's exhausting! Glad to be in a place where we are being supported to let go a little...and intend to do just that...right after the visit from my in-laws this weekend! xxx

  17. I definitely think that this is an issue for me and has been the reason for my procrastinating behaviour .... waiting for the perfect circumstances, the perfect time... we should just life and do and get done. Most things don't require perfection, just us showing up is enough! Great post! x

  18. I'm so pleased it resonated with you both, Mamacino and Lee. Yes, exhaustion and procrastination have been my constant companions as well. J x


Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, you gorgeous soul. You've just made my day! J x

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