Maladaptive perfectionism

I used to view perfectionism as a kind of plague, nothing less.

I remember preparing for job interviews, and being ready to answer perfectionism as my greatest weakness. It was a cliche but honest response : I was a real perfectionist. But I would not have hired one, and truth be told I would not have hired myself.

I was ready to give this answer because I knew most recruiters did not understand perfectionism. They would view it as a positive weakness in the workplace. I was probably wrong, but fortunately nobody asked.

Perfectionism is our low self worth in action

In reality we are using perfectionism as a protection against anticipated criticism. We think everything we do or say has to be perfect to make sure nobody can criticize us.

So we are ready to put huge efforts into the tiniest thing, from our physical appearance to a task at work to a dinner at home with friends, all of this to stay safe.

Perfectionism is a demonstration of our low self esteem: we usually understand well others cannot do everything perfectly and that it is okay; good enough is good enough; perfection is an unattainable goal; we have to allocate time and effort to priorities which means some things will be done badly and some others will not be done at all.

Intellectually, we get it.

But deep down we do not believe it’s applicable to us. For some mysterious reason, the world is entitled to attack us mercilessly if what we do is less than perfect. And if the world doesn’t, then we’ll take care of it. I remember going through full blown shame attacks for the silliest mistake.

Perfectionism prevents us from enjoying life

If we are perfectionists, there is not way we will enjoy doing something. We cannot appreciate the journey, we cannot experience the famous flow: we are too busy anticipating everything that could go wrong.

We don’t trust ourselves. We don’t trust we can accomplish something gracefully without overthinking every detail. We don’t trust our spontaneity can offer us and the world something valuable. We believe if you are letting ourselves be without controlling everything the result will be unacceptable.

We don’t trust others either. We can not imagine them loving or accepting us if we just do things normally. If we sometimes forget tasks, sometimes screw up, and sometimes do great things. We don’t trust others to allow us to be normal, in short.

And when we do achieve something great, even when others notice, all we see is the tiny, unimportant flaw, the one imperfection. We fixate on it and stay unsatisfied.

Perfectionism does not get things done

As you probably know, perfectionism does not guarantee the overall result will be amazing. Far from it.

It took me a long time to figure it out, but nobody expected me to do something perfectly. Reasonably good was enough.

Why ? Because trying to achieve perfection is time consuming. It’s usually better to cover more ground and accomplish more things, than doing one perfectly and leaving the rest undone.

Can you imagine organizing the perfect birthday party for your kid but not having the time to take him to the dentist and cook meals? Perfectionism gets in the way of overall result.

Worse, it can prevent us from starting something we have to do.

How many times did I not start something I really wanted to, for fear of not doing it really well ? How many times did I drop a project because I thought what I was doing was not good enough? And how many time didn’t I start something really important, because I was busy trying to do something less important perfectly ? More times than I can count, and l have wasted a lot of time.

The best friend of perfectionism is procrastination. The way I see it now, my perfectionism gave all the power to what others thought, and helped me abandon myself.

Yet for all its faults, I came to understand perfectionism has been also my friend. An unruly, irritating friend, but a friend nevertheless.

Perfectionism and trauma

I tried to trace back my first experiences with perfectionism and was hit hard by my first memory of it: for years as a child, I went to bed making a list of things I would do better from the next day.

I was doing this list to be more intelligent, funnier, more autonomous, more successful. I wanted to be an awesome eight years old and there was a lot to do to get there.

If you find this attitude bizarre for an eight years old, you are totally right. Children are supposed to play, experience life and learn from it. Not cross tasks on a to do list like a stressed out wedding planner.

But at home I was the ugly duckling: the one who never got it right, who was oversensitive, shy, lazy, and bad. I was criticized constantly. My scapegoating served both as a justification and a cover up for abuse.

Of course I was too young to see it that way. For me, what other family members thought about me was justified. If I could just find a way to be a better person, then my parents would think better of me, and with a lot of effort, even abuse could disappear from my life.

I could do something about it. I could control things. I could stop violence.

Perfectionism carried me when nothing else could

Thinking about it from where I am now makes me very, very sad. Of course people, or children, are not scapegoated or abused because of the way they are. They are abused because of problems the abuser, group or family, have: usually a pretty severe mental health issue.

My family was no exception. There was really nothing I could do. Looking back now, I see a traumatized, but intelligent, cute, and kind girl anyway. There was not much need for change, except my circumstances.

But it was impossible to see myself and my family like this then. It would have meant there was nothing I could do. It was far too devastating.

I needed a semblance of power, of agency. I needed to do something.

Yes, healthy striving is better than perfectionism. Doing something out of love or pleasure is far more enjoyable than out of fear, and it works way better.

But sometimes, healthy striving is not available because we still need to heal before being able to face reality. Perfectionism can then fuel us with energy and purpose. It bring some difficult side effects, but it prevents us from giving up. And it helps us go somewhere where we can start the difficult task of healing from our trauma.

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