I remember vividly the first time I was called a perfectionist. It was during my first grade parent teacher conference. In preparation, everyone in the class had been traced on a large piece of paper and given the project of drawing ourselves. On that day I had worn a floral shirt, so all week in class, I obsessively applied myself to drawing every single tiny flower, but the project ended up incomplete. I can remember the gut wrenching feeling of not having done well enough, feeling that my parents would be disappointed that I didn’t have the best project, that I was less than all of the other students with my half-empty life size drawing of a shirt.
And then my teacher told my parents that she thought I was “a bit of a perfectionist”. I believe she meant well by this because she was a kind and caring woman who had watched me self-flagellate over this ridiculous project and saw that at age 6, I needed an intervention of some sort. However, something was lost in the delivery, either to my parents or to me, because I ended up wearing perfectionism like a badge of honor for nearly two decades. Being a perfectionist obviously meant that I was on my way to being perfect and that I was better than others and would be rewarded. I continuously rose to the top of my class, excelling academically all throughout school (including undergrad and grad school), earning awards, accolades, and scholarships. Sometimes I faltered or made big mistakes; when that happened, I fell hard, often jeopardizing relationships based on my reactions and usually never revisiting the task at which I had failed. I thought that I could be “perfect”, and so perfectionism became my goal. I carefully excised all “non-perfectable” areas (such as organized sports and advanced mathematics) from my repertoire.
As you might be expecting, perfectionism is actually a really horrible thing. It’s not a goal at all, but the root of most of my problems. So why am I now a “recovering” perfectionist? After many personal and professional experiences in which perfectionism did not serve me well (approximately all of my experiences…ever), I recently picked up Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. As many of you know, Brown researches shame and vulnerability, and Daring Greatly is about how to embrace and practice vulnerability in our lives to live more wholly and fully. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brown identifies perfectionism as one of the “shields” to vulnerability.
Perfectionism is addictive, empty, cyclical, limiting, and fed by the demons of shame and self-hatred. It is difficult to see, perhaps for a long time, because we perfectionists are rewarded when we get close to the perfection we seek. It’s easy to mistake it for excellence, but it is not the same as striving for excellence. Seeking perfection for the sake of perfection is empty, because the sole force of motivation is to avoid the feelings of hurt, pain, and inadequacy that accompany perceived failures, rejections, and losses. Perfectionism forces us to bury our mistakes, deny our feelings, not ask for help, and push others away for fear that they will see our true, imperfect selves.
There are several experiences that have shown me the dangers of my perfectionism, and as I read Daring Greatly, I could hear the complicated script of my own perfectionism in my head. These internal and often external thoughts became crystallized into textbook examples of perfectionism:
Only pursuing activities that I knew I would be good at.
Sitting on the sidelines and making excuses because I was afraid of not being good enough and others judging me.
Not being able to quit something or turn down an opportunity even when I was burning myself out because I didn’t think I would be valued by others unless I did everything (and did it effortlessly).
Constantly questioning whether or not others liked me, and intricately associating my self-worth with other people’s attitudes and behaviors.
Each time these things happened in my life, I had the same stomach-twisting “you’re not enough” feeling that I experienced as a first grader who couldn’t finish the project. Actually, these things continue to happen, because it’s not easy to undo a couple of decades of socialization and self-inflicted shaming. But now when that “you’re not enough” feeling bubbles up (Brene Brown calls it the gremlins), I do a better job of catching myself. I do a better job of saying “I am enough. And people care about me and love me. And I am an imperfect human being who is always making mistakes and learning from them.”
I believed for so long that success and joy could be achieved through perfection; that I could shut out all of the sadness and pain if no one ever saw me struggle. But I’m starting to learn that the struggle is the beauty in life. Love, friendship, education, justice, art—all of the things I care deeply about and value are made possible through shared struggles, through taking risks, falling down, and helping each other up. I have no visions of grandeur that I’ve now got life figured out at age 25, but I do know that I’m ready to take off my badge of perfectionism, the shield that I have been hiding behind, and to get a little dirty out there in life.
Ashley N. Robinson is a Residence Hall Director at the University of Connecticut. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AshleyNRobinson.