My mom tells me a story of when I was only a few months old. I was sitting in my crib, playing with my Disney Busy Box, a toy with various dials to turn and buttons to press.
I had successful maneuvered through all the functions of the Busy Box – except one. It was like the dial of a rotary phone, and I knew that my task was to stick my finger in there and turn it.
My mom tells me I sat there, fixated on this task for an exorbitantly long period in baby time, and would not stop trying, even though it was beyond my capabilities.
My tiny baby fingers did not yet have the needed manual dexterity, nor my developing baby brain the necessary myelination, but I wanted to turn that dial more than anything in the entire world. When I couldn’t, I became increasingly frustrated and upset.
My mom tried to distract me by dangling another toy in front of me, but I would have none of it. I angrily waived her away and continued to perseverate on my failure with the Busy Box. She tells me, “That’s when I started to worry about you.”
How perfectionism manifests
Perfectionism has been like that “frenemy” who’s tagged along with me my entire life. On the surface she’s helped me get stuff done right. But underneath she was always there at the worst moments to whisper cruel criticisms in my ear no matter how hard I’d worked or how well I’d done.
Perfectionism helped me get straight A’s all through school, helped me get into Harvard, helped me graduate from medical school with highest honors. She helped me go from a skinny 13-year-old with no athletic ability to a Division I college water polo player. She’s helped me excel at pretty much anything I put my mind to.
But she was also there to tell me that each of these accomplishments was not sufficient, that I should try harder, do more, be better. When I had achieved something difficult and was enjoying my success, she was there to whisper in my ear, “Not good enough… set your sights higher.”
Perfectionism never let me enjoy any of my successes. I always had to buckle down and move on to the next thing.
The biggest problem with perfectionism
Perhaps the biggest problem with perfectionism, though, is that no one will ever tell you that you have a problem.
No one is going to say, “Hey buddy, can you stop being so organized, so conscientious, so disciplined? Can you stop making my life easier by taking the weight of the world and putting it on your own shoulders?”
Sure, people gave lip service to me needing to chill out. They’d say, “Hey Elana, you need to relax. Take the night off and have some fun.”
Relax? Fun? I didn’t know what they were talking about. As soon as I learned what alcohol was I knew I could have a drink or two to help shut off my ruminating mind, or maybe three to help me lose my inhibitions, but I didn’t know how to have fun.
And what did they mean, anyway? They liked me just the way I was. Their lips said one thing, but I could see the truth in their eyes. I could see it on their faces when they smiled at my accomplishments. I could hear it in their voices when they bragged about me to other people.
My parents, teachers, bosses – I validated them. My success helped them feel they were good at what they did. My peers admired or even envied me.
They didn’t want to see the other side of me – the part of me that felt insecure and weak, the part of me that was exhausted from working so hard, the part of me that was struggling desperately to keep it together.
The message was sometimes direct, sometimes implied, but always crystal clear: I was good and lovable because I was successful. So perfectionism was both a problem I was born with, and a problem that was reinforced my entire life.
The stories perfectionism tells you
Perfectionism stems from a dissatisfaction with where you are and who you are, and because of that, nothing is ever good enough. But perfectionism will try to fool you. It will tell you stories like:
- “When I have ______, then I’ll be happy” (But when you get it, you just want something else).
- “Everyone needs to hold themselves to the same standards I do” (But they don’t, and you get frustrated).
- “I can do whatever I set my mind to” (You can, but at what cost?).
- “I need to be perfect to be loved” (Good luck with being perfect).
So if you are perfectionistic, the question needs to be – how long do you want to be dissatisfied for? How long do you want to listen to these stories?
The cure for perfectionism
There is no one solution for perfectionism, but there is a process. It is a process of starting to untangle from your high standards, your rigid expectations, and your stories about what you need to accomplish to be a good, worthwhile human being. It is a process of letting go.
At first, this is a terrifying prospect. I knew my perfectionism was a problem for years before I had the balls to do anything about it.
For a perfectionist, letting go of your standards and expectations feeling like jumping out of a plane only to realize you’re not wearing a parachute.
Won’t hell freeze over? Won’t everything fall apart? Won’t the ground shatter beneath your feet?
After you’ve jumped, though, you realize there’s no ground. There’s nothing you’re going to hit. Nothing really bad is going to happen. But you won’t learn this until you try.
Take failures as learning opportunities
I never purposely set out to fail, obviously, but I am extremely appreciative for the times I did. If you are a perfectionist and have never failed, then you’ve got even bigger problems than I do.
Failure humbles you, grounds you, and forces you to reevaluate the narratives you tell yourself about what makes you a valuable person (Hint: it’s not never making any mistakes).
A few big failures have been crucial in helping me construct a healthier sense of self. The first was when I was in college. I got into Harvard without actually having to try that hard, but when I arrived on campus was immediately knocked off my high horse by my peers much smarter and more talented than I.
I coped by trying harder and putting even more pressure on myself, and got so wound up that I ended up dropping out of school my junior year.
The second big failure was in medical school, when I got dumped by a guy I was madly in love with (even though it wasn’t a great match, anyway).
Both of these situations felt horrible at the time, but forced me to reconsider why my sense of self was so tied up in external circumstances that I had no control over, and why I made things so difficult by setting myself up with impossible standards.
Learn to tolerate discomfort without acting on it
If you are a perfectionistic person, you are always on guard for any feelings of anxiety that could indicate a problem you need to address. When discomfort starts to rise, you may react by trying to understand what’s causing it, so you can come up with a fix.
This quality can help you notice and react to problems quickly, but it is also a cage that traps you. There is always a problem, always something you could be doing. You tell yourself that you will reach a point where you have fixed all your problems and can relax, but that time never comes.
Instead of reflexively reacting to discomfort, practice tolerating it, without acting. Discomfort is a part of life, and it’s often unavoidable. Really sit with the discomfort. Examine how it feels in your body, what thought patterns it brings.
Practice sitting with smaller problems, and then move up to bigger ones.
Redirect your attention to the present moment
I know that without conscious effort, almost 100% of my mental energy would be spent ruminating about the past or planning for the future. This is just where my mind takes me. So I need to make a diligent effort to redirect my attention to the present moment.
For me, one practice is meditation. I sit every day with the intention to focus on my breath. When my mind takes me somewhere else (which it always does), I redirect my attention back to the breath. I practice attending to the present moment with daily activities – when I drive, when I eat breakfast, when I wash the dishes.
The practice that resonates with you may be different, but the goal should be the same. Maybe you redirect your mind to the present when you exercise, when you engage in a hobby you love, when you spend time with friends and family. I know all of these things help me, too.
Every moment when you are engaged in the present is a moment when you are not harshly criticizing yourself or other people, not thinking about everything you need to get done, not telling yourself that your happiness sits at some point in the future, when you have done X and Y and Z.
Let people see your other side
We perfectionists tend to spend an exorbitant among of energy trying to seem “put together” all the time. We only show the world one part of ourselves.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to be vulnerable, to be honest about your fears and flaws, to connect with other people on that deeper level that comes when you look another person in the face and say, “Hey, I’m human, and you’re human, and that’s okay.”
You may fear people will feel uncomfortable with your honesty, or will make you feel stupid for admitting you need help, but most people are not like that. When most people see the veneer of a perfectionist crack, they are relieved to see you’re just like them. They will feel happiness at being able to reach out and help you.
Don’t take my word for it, though – try it for yourself. You won’t know until you jump. I’ll do my part and hit “publish” on this blog post, even though it’s not quite as good as I want it to be.
Photo by Daniel Zedda