I’ll admit it: I’m a perfectionist. Yet I’m also well aware of the damage that perfectionism inflicts on the psyche, let alone self-confidence. Holding yourself to too high a standard — as I came to realize — not only makes life insufferable, but inhibits decision-making, forward momentum and, um, fun.
I only recently came clean. I had this crazy idea I’d outgrown it, like my itchy, old school uniform or a penchant for saying “like” (which I dropped long ago, thank God). For years, I didn’t own an iron, and let wrinkles soften in the shower. I let things slide: typos, dishes, laundry. Does it look like a perfectionist lives in this apartment? I don’t think so. Would a perfectionist send a text with “sushi” misspelled? No way. I told myself that I was far more spontaneous and carefree than I’d formerly believed I was.
Except, I wasn’t.
I'd simply been looking at the wrong evidence. Perfectionism wasn't manifesting itself in what I was doing (say, organizing shelves or creating other visual, tactile versions of “perfect”), but what I wasn't doing.
In my 20s, my perfectionism was full-on dysfunctional. I didn’t apply for a job senior year of college or even after graduation. I had straight A’s, was Phi Beta Kappa, and won a writing scholarship, and yet simply couldn’t imagine that I qualified for any job. So I temped miserably for more than a year, afraid I’d get myself into a role I couldn’t handle. I coasted along in a depressed, weepy fog for months on end. When my mother would pick up the phone, I just sobbed into it.
Still, I didn’t believe I had a problem. Because I’d known “real” perfectionists, like a girl I’ll call Kelly who’d lived down the hall in college. Her room was perfectly ordered, as was her (very busy) social calendar, and she worked out every day at 7am without fail (even weekends). I thought, why can’t I be like Kelly? And then Kelly started losing more and more weight and raising eyebrows in the dorm. Kelly had perfected herself into an eating disorder.
In a very popular recent piece in the Atlantic magazine (“The Confidence Gap”), Katty Kay and Claire Shipman describe perfectionism as a “confidence killer”:
“Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required...The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done,” they wrote.
This was certainly true for me. I wasn't going after the things I wanted to do. I made up excuses: I was too busy. Had too many ideas. I resisted choosing. Sometimes I told myself it was just too hard.
But it wasn’t too hard.
What was hard was keeping up with an idea of what I thought I should be and could do, namely, to create a whole, perfect, infallible thing. And that isn’t just hard; it’s impossible. So I wasn't doing anything at all.
I’ve started to slowly liberate myself from my perfectionist prison, but it isn’t so much a jailbreak as an emotional Shawshank, chipping my way out, a little each day. To do that you need to recognize what is holding you hostage. You may think you’re not getting anywhere, but you are — you can tunnel your way through until you see a little crack of light.
I’d like to say that I’m a functioning perfectionist, which is to say: I get done what needs to be done when someone’s waiting for it. Because the risk of disappointing someone is worse, for me anyway. The problem is that when someone isn’t waiting for it it (i.e., an idea for a book or an article or a business), my perfectionism allows me to put it on ice.
On the career front, I’ve found that risking failure is the only way to learn something new. In dating I learned to brave rejection (and I recommend you not just risk rejection, but seek it out). On the day-to-day front, I know that regular, imperfect maintenance is better than none at all. But most importantly, I’m learning to push through the friction of fear.
The perfect image you have of the “you” you could be isn’t real at all. Perfectionism is a warped mirror. And there’s nothing worse than letting a made-up idea of who you should be dominate the woman you are.
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