The perils of being a perfectionist

Paralyzed by perfection

I was part of a growing number of people with high-functioning anxiety for a long time, and didn’t even know it.

For many years, I admired others I viewed as perfectionists. They seemed to do everything so well. While having high-standards is a good thing, it isn’t the same as being a perfectionist.

I wore perfectionism as both a badge of honour and suit of armour. If everything looked perfect and I paid great attention to detail and worked harder, I felt safe. If I did things perfectly there was nothing for anyone to criticize and I felt I had value.

I was like a duck, appearing to float smoothly along the surface, but underneath I was paddling like crazy just to stay afloat. It all looked good on the outside but inside it felt crappy, and it felt like anything but perfect.

Perfectionism worked for quite a long time, until it didn’t. It led me to an epic burnout when my mind and body said “stop!”

I didn’t recognize or understand my own tendency toward striving for perfection for many years.

I thought my new co-worker was crazy when she handed me a paper listing the qualities of a perfectionist during my first week of orientation at the university. I didn’t get it. I surely didn’t feel like I had a right to claim the moniker, until I read it.

Others saw my perfectionism and it was encouraged and rewarded by many. My work was always done with painstaking attention to detail. My family was proud of my fabulous GPA, my house was perfectly clean and in order and every task was done with great attention to detail.

I work with many people who are suffering because of their drive for perfection. Researchers report the tendency of perfectionism is rising in society today, especially among young people.

Perfectionism doesn’t always look or feel like perfection. It has some surprising faces.

Hallmarks of perfectionism may appear like:

• Never feeling like you’re enough

• Inability to slow down

• Over-thinking (analysis paralysis)

• Procrastination

• Feeling paralyzed to take action

• Fear of making decisions

• Being hyper-critical of self and/or others

• Sensitivity to criticism

• Feeling anxious and/or depressed

• People-pleasing, having poor boundaries or inability to say no

• Being more focussed on what’s wrong instead of what’s going well

I avoided things I couldn’t do perfectly. Important things got put on the back-burner, which was a cause for inner shame.

I had analysis-paralysis when faced with big decisions, and got so caught up with insignificant details that other, more important things got missed. I held challenging emotions close to my chest, not wanting others to see my vulnerability.

Anxiety and perfectionism were bad bedmates and they robbed me of sleep. I was exhausted yet driven and couldn’t stop.

Perfectionism isn’t one-size-fits-all, as there are different types of perfectionism. You can take an online test to determine the source of your perfectionism but receiving the help of a wise professional is invaluable.

For me, perfectionist traits were a buffer for feelings of vulnerability, and made it hard to bounce back from challenge. I was terrified to make mistakes, and if I did, I ruminated on them to the point of distraction.

Mindfulness and gaining awareness into my own tendencies was, and continues to be, essential.

Becoming aware of my negative self-talk was shocking. I’d never speak to another person the way I spoke to myself. Learning to challenge my all-or-nothing mentality was powerful, as was finding out the world wouldn’t end if everything wasn’t perfect.

Learning to drop the very critical lens I had of myself, and hold my quirks and foibles with self-compassion and a good amount of humour, has allowed me to relax and chill. Vulnerability has now become one of my greatest strengths. Brene Brown was right about The Gifts of Imperfection.

While I still have to remain aware and alert to my tendency toward perfectionism, it doesn’t limit and destroy my happiness like it once did.

Understanding perfectionism, gaining insight into myself, and learning a new way of being was instrumental in recovering from burnout and a life of striving for what was unattainable.

I still like to do things well, but giving up striving for what’s not real has allowed me to relax, enjoy life more, and feel happier and more resilient. I sleep much better at night.

Sometimes good enough is enough.

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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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