I used to think perfectionism only applied to my work ethic and the high standards I placed on myself for the work I produced. I thought perfectionism was about using perfect grammar, making things look pretty, and proofreading my work a million times before showing it to anyone. It was one of those things that I would say was my biggest “weakness” during interviews, but I would actually say it with a lot pride. “Look at me being such a perfectionist.” I would wear it like a badge of honour. But what I’ve come to find is that perfectionism has been far more pervasive and far more suffocating in my life than just perfect spelling and being detail oriented. For me, perfectionism had become a way of life, a way of being, that was fueled by a deep and all encompassing belief of not being good enough, of being innately unworthy. And perfectionism became my crutch in life to stay afloat, to find fleeting moments of confidence and pride to fill the void that was inside of me. The only problem was that it was fleeting, a momentary bandaid to the deeper rooted wound within. I applied perfection to every single aspect of my life and personality. And for most of my life I worked to craft a version of myself that fit the bill of what I thought perfection should be. Someone who was hardworking, high-achieving, got an Ivy League education, had a covetable job, and a great sense of style, was polite, and personable, articulate, “cool,” nice, humble, confident, the list goes on. The only problem was that this idea of perfection was pieced together based on what I thought other people’s expectations were of who I should be in order to be deemed worthy, lovable, desirable, respectable; and thus, came the belief that if I was not all of those things and more, I would no longer be worthy, lovable, desirable, or respectable.
As a young child, I didn’t naturally display the qualities that was wanted of me in order to be “a good girl.” My parents wanted me to be sweet, obedient, quiet, and well mannered. Instead I was emotional, strong willed, and stubborn. However, in order to receive praise and love, I slowly started to learn how to contort myself to fit into the perfect little boxes laid out for me on who I was told I had to be. I learned that fully expressing my emotions was bad, speaking my mind was bad, doing things my way was bad. And so I learned to do the opposite, to suppress my emotions, to do as I was told, and colour within the lines. Until my emotions would bottle up inside of me and burst open, causing trouble, being punished, and then sending me into a shame spiral, which then only reinforced my belief of needing to be perfect all the time. This developed into deep rooted, subconscious beliefs that the way I naturally am is not good enough, and unsafe, and unworthy of love, and in order to remedy that I had to abandon myself and try my best to be whoever the person in front of me wanted me to be. To be perfect in their eyes.
The problem with this way of living, is that I lost my sense of inherent worthiness from within. I placed my sense of worthiness in the hands of other people, I made my sense of worthiness contingent on the things that I achieved, I believed worthiness was something to be attained only after checking off the checkboxes of somebody else’s list of life. So anytime that I ever so slightly deviated from that checklist, my worth would plummet and the self doubt and negative self talk would come crashing down on me. I saw my worthiness like the stock market, rather than a constant and never ending stream that flowed from within. I held deeply rooted subconscious beliefs like “I’m afraid of being myself” “I’m afraid that my family, friends, society won’t accept me for who I really am” and “If I’m not perfect, then I will no longer be loved.” Deep down inside, I was terrified of being an outcast and not being accepted by my family and society for who I truly am. Because if I’ve learned my whole life that I have to be a certain way in order to receive love, what happens when I finally drop my facade and allow myself to actually be Me? Not the edited, cherry-picked, easy-to-swallow version of me, but the fully expressed, unfiltered, multi-dimensional version of me.
Often times we pick up these beliefs and ways of being as survival mechanisms when we’re young. But as we get older, we keep running these subconscious survival mechanisms without stopping to see the wood from the trees. We don’t often stop to question whether these beliefs truly serve us anymore or if this is really the way we wish to live. And this is what I’ve been faced with over the past few months, seeing this deeply rooted core wound, facing my shadows, tending to my wounded inner child, my conditionings, my self limiting beliefs, and seeing how they’re all intertwined. Because perfectionism is wily. Often times when something is so deep rooted, it begins to germinate and sprout in myriad different ways. The way this began to sprout for me over time was low self worth, overworking, constantly questioning and second guessing myself, people pleasing, being afraid of people not liking me, a deep sense of unfulfillment, a feeling of being lost, always trying to prove myself, chasing external achievements and success, lack of self trust, not feeling good enough, being exhausted all the time, stress, anxiety, and the list goes on. So perfectionism didn’t just apply to my work ethic like I thought. When I allowed myself to look deeper and see a little clearer, I saw that perfection for me also shape-shifted into:
Having a black and white vision of the world: where everything is clearly black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or imperfect, and there’s no shades of grey or room for error.
Judgment: when other people didn’t fit themselves into the same boxes that I fit myself into, I judged them and thought they were wrong.
The need to be right: because if I was wrong, I was no longer perfect, and that was too difficult to accept, so I would always defend myself vehemently or get upset otherwise.
Control: I constantly felt the need to control myself, the people around me, my environment, and every aspect of my life in order to make everything fit my definition of “perfection.”
Gossiping: because I lacked my own inherent sense of self worth, I would put other people down to subconsciously make myself feel better about myself.
Victimhood: I would complain constantly when things weren’t going “perfectly” in my life, because it was easier for my ego to blame everyone and everything else rather than take responsibility for myself.
anger/frustration: when someone didn’t fit my expectation of them, I would get really triggered. Because I had taken on the pressure of conforming myself to other people’s expectations of me and holding myself to a really high standard. And I would project that same pressure onto others and ultimately get upset at them when they would “fall short” of my expectations.
These are all parts of myself that I have excavated from the deep archeological dig site of my psyche. And there’s definitely still lots of treasure down there. And at first it was hard. It was triggering. And it also got kind of meta (like when I started witnessing myself judging myself for being judgmental, or judging others when I saw them being judgmental, and then finally judging myself for judging others for judging others and being judgmental. You still with me?) But that was step 1–-to be able to see clearly and be a neutral 3rd party observer to myself and my own thoughts. The biggest challenge here was that as I started to excavate and see these shadow aspects of myself that I deemed “not good” or “unlikeable,” invariably, I had just created a new kind of box and a new definition of perfection that excluded all of these qualities. At that point it was easy to get sucked down into the same rabbit hole of continuing to run the same program of “perfection,” but just with a slightly different expectation of what “perfection” looked like. And as I became more aware of these qualities and saw them more clearly in myself, I also started to see them increasingly more clearly in people around me. People who I used to be really close to suddenly were displaying and mirroring all these parts of myself that I no longer wanted to identify myself with. But the thing is, any unlikable, triggering, or frustrating quality that we see in another, is simply just an unintegrated part of self. So the good news is we don’t need to change anyone but ourselves. The other good news is, we get to put in the deep work for ourselves.
And the point is not to see the perfectionism and push it out. It’s not about judging the judgment or controlling the control. It’s about healing whatever open wound was left untended, and then integrating from a place of love. Loving the perfectionism, being compassionate toward the judgment, being kind toward the control. Like an animal, if it’s being attacked it’ll bare it’s teeth and raise it’s hairs and growl, but if you let it be, if you come to it with kindness, it’ll eventually curl up under a tree and take a nap in the sun.
So I thank my perfectionism for all that it’s done for me over all these years. I thank the judgment and the control and the need to be right. And I tell them it’s ok, everything is ok, we’re ok. We’re safe now. We’re safe.
And I will admit, this is still an ongoing journey I’m walking the path of. I’m still a perfectionist, I’m still judgmental, I’m still controlling. And I’m also a non-perfectionist, I’m open-minded, and I’m easy going. The world is no longer completely black and white and I feel more comfortable sitting in the magic of paradox. I’m currently going through the process of integrating, to fully embody and live from the frequency of the new energy that I now run in my system on perfectionism and non-perfectionism. It isn’t something I’ve fully mastered yet, but I’m committed to the practice and walking the daily path.
Stay tuned for more confessions of a recovering perfectionist as I continue to make my way down the road.