Why perfectionism is dangerous

I’m currently reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Parent and Lead. She has this to say about perfectionism:

Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s the hazardous detour.

She goes on to say that perfectionism and striving for excellence are two different things (true), it’s not self-improvement or the key to success, and it’s not a way to avoid shame (rather, it’s a form of shame). Perfectionism is, she continues, self-destructive, addictive, and it sets people up on a dangerous cycle of shame and self-blame.

Phew!

I can relate to this more than I want to admit. But I feel I need to admit this and finally put this part of me to rest.

I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life, thanks to years of good grades, being a ‘good girl’, and being praised for being a good student.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se – it’s how I internalised it that’s the problem. See, at heart, I’ve always been a people pleaser. And an approval seeker. It feels good, doesn’t it, when someone praises you. But for me, I often equated what I accomplished and how well I did it with who I was – that is, I am what I achieve.

Back in high school, I was a skinny, short teenager. I felt invisible among my curvier or prettier friends (in my mind). I felt invisible even with my mother and sister (Mum was young and men and boys looked and I didn’t miss it).

Boys would come to me to ask how they could get my friend, one in particular, to notice them. It pissed me off, but I went on helping. Being nice.

I wanted to be seen, not just as the smart wing-woman. Click To Tweet

And so I did something stupid. I watched another, incredibly high-achieving, smart popular girl, get thinner and thinner, and noticed all the attention she got from worried friends. Everyone noticed. Everyone worried.

And so I ate less. I skipped breakfast, threw out my lunch and tipped out portions of my dinner when I could. I never quite got to throwing up – I tried once and couldn’t go through with it. I was a tiny 42kg in Year 11 and 12. Mum watched me, as we had someone else in our lives with anorexia, but this would be news to her.

No one said anything at school. Who knows if they noticed. They were too busy noticing the popular girl (who I’m pleased to say, is a successful doctor these days – as well as an amazing cook, judging by her Insta feed).

I know I’m lucky. I stopped myself from going too far down this road (I loved hot chips and potato scallops too much to give up food) and realised how stupid I was being.

But my need for perfection continued.

I’d rewrite a whole page of an essay if I made a mistake in my handwriting. It didn’t matter if I was on the last line. I’d worked hard to have good handwriting (in my primary school days my goal was to get a gold star for my handwriting and it crushed me when I got silver or coloured stars, or worse, no star at all.)

When my children were born, I didn’t sleep when they did. No, I cleaned and cooked and made sure the house was as close to spotless as I could get it. To all onlookers, I had this motherhood thing down pat – my house was tidy, my kids had manners, they had good, home-cooked food, they were provided with plenty of stimulating activities at home (I was a family day care mum and we had programmes!), they were well-adjusted, and I always seemed to be coping just fine (well, perhaps that man who caught me loudly berating the kids in the car didn’t think so).

Yeah.

It must have worked because I was told I had this “vibe” of having it all together down pat so well, that this woman felt jealous and embarrassed about her own mothering. What the? I hate to think of all the times I put off playing with my kids because I was cleaning.

For years, I never went out sans make-up or neat hair (and that caused me many a drama, especially in humid weather). I’d wipe off make-up if it didn’t look right, thinking I looked ugly. I always compared my looks to my sister and mother.

Hard not to when a female family member made comments about my then lack of bosom when she saw me (I didn’t fit the German mould, in her eyes) – one time she said, ‘I’m glad you have finally put on a little weight. You used to look ugly.’ Oh yeah, appearance mattered.

Another family member, with the best of intentions, called me ‘average looking’ which, at 18, cut deep. Average? I didn’t expect stunning but pretty would have done wonders for my self-esteem.

I struggled with criticism about things I did, seeing it as a reflection of ME. I was not good enough.

I dreamt of becoming a writer – a creative writer of novels and children’s books. But I didn’t share the things I wrote, except with my sons, and hid them away in a drawer for years. And when I finally got the courage to share, I was a nervous wreck.

When I finally made the choice to make writing a key part of my life, I would fuss over a word or sentence because it had to be just right.

You get the picture.

Perfectionism is crippling. It is not doing your best. It is never accepting your best. Click To Tweet

I walked on the verges of a dangerous path for so much of my life.

In Writing the Dream, I wrote a piece about my journey to becoming a writer and how I needed to stop listening to One Day, Self Doubt and Perfectionism in order to achieve my dream.

I’m working on that. And a lot has changed.

I’m not as afraid to share my work. Heck, I want it out there, right?

I’m not afraid to show my vulnerability.

I say ‘no’ or take time to think things over instead of trying to please all the time.

I go to the shops with NO make-up when I feel like it.

Using mindfulness techniques, I’m working on loving myself and banishing self-doubt and shame, because they still crop up now and again.

I still care what people think of me. Most of the time.

I’m still a self-editor, and I always will be, but I’ve discovered that I love the slow-cooking process of writing. That’s how I write best. I’ll never do NaNoWriMo – I know it would not work for me.

I still like my house clean (but I don’t panic if the floor isn’t vacuumed every day) and I’d be mortified if someone came over and the kids’ toilet was messy.

But.

I don’t think I’m a perfect perfectionist any more.

I’m learning to appreciate the cracks.

To accept that I am enough. I am good enough.

I’m learning to accept that what and how I do things is not the sum of who I am.

I am more than the piece of writing that got rejected. Click To Tweet

More than the way my hair sits on my head. More than the cat hair on my floor.

I am me. Cracks and all.

And here’s something I’ve just realised.

I never was a perfect perfectionist. Click To Tweet

I couldn’t self-harm beyond a certain point. And while I struggled with not good enough, every once in a while my me-ness would rise up and roar.

Remember I mentioned that the boys asking about my friend pissed me off? One day I told them how I felt: ‘I’m sick of you coming and asking me about her. It’s the only reason you talk to me. I’m a person, too. And if you don’t want to talk to me for myself, don’t bother.‘ They got the message.

It just took me a long time to.

4 thoughts on “Why perfectionism is dangerous

  1. Ow. So much to relate to in this searingly honest and heartbreaking post. The ‘smart wing woman’ line broke my little heart a teensy bit more. I’m not sure words can convey how much this post is cracking that shell of protection around my own fears about writing and my own needs to please and have approval. Thank you Monique. To those of us who care so much about words, the right words at the right time change the axis of our world.

    1. Oh, Kelly. My eyes are tearing up as I read your comment. We all have our fears. The thing is, we need to embrace our worth and stop thinking that our vulnerabilities are our weaknesses. They’re not. By admitting them, we are strong. Keep on going.

  2. Thank you so much for being strong enough to share your story. I have never had a problem knowing that I am not perfect. It was repeatedly drummed into me that I should be like my brother. What I did worry about and still do is not fitting in. I worry all the time that I am in the way. So much so that I usually stand to the side or at the back of a crowd hoping that I am invisable, that no one really notices me. I know it is a silly thing to do but that is just the way it is.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing such a personal post, Monique. By writing about your vulnerabilities, you are offering hope to others.

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