My first encounter with the word perfectionism was when I was 18 years old and applying for a job in fashion retail. Someone had informed me that I would probably be asked for my weakness and “perfectionist” should be my answer.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Basically it means you want everything perfect all the time. It is considered a bad trait, but to an employer it sounds really good.”
It didn’t sound so bad to have high standards.
But little did I know at the time, there is a big difference between holding high standards for yourself and perfectionism.
One is healthy and admirable. One is a disease. I missed this early warning sign letting me know how dangerous this word could be to my life and my happiness.
My perfectionism grew quickly like a beanstalk. By the time I hit graduate school, I was a monster. I will give you an example…
There was buzz in my neuroanatomy class. Soon we would be completing an assignment that was worth the majority of the years mark. It was a take home assignment in which we were given a research question and then 48 hours to research and complete a full study protocol from start to finish.
At 6pm on the Friday night, the research question came through by email. It was centered around Alzheimer’s disease – my first win, as this condition was my specialty. I hit the article database and began researching. I discovered a paper in which an experiment had been completed in zebrafish. The nervous system of this little fish has many similarities to that of humans. I counted this as another win, knowing that most of my class would be using rats – this would help me to stand out. However, it also meant that research in this area was sparse at this time and I would have to work much harder to find papers to model my experiment off.
I slept for four hours over the entire weekend and ate sporadically at my desk. I successfully handed in my assignment on the Sunday night after wearing the same pair of PJ pants for 24 hours. I then slept for an entire day after because my brain was so exhausted.
A week or so later, the email came through to say that the assignment had been marked and we could pick it up from the neuro office. As I nervously took the stairs in the old School of Medicine building, the worst scenarios went through my head. What if I got it really wrong. What if they didn’t like the zebrafish idea. What if I fail this paper. What the hell will I do with my life, this is the only thing I’m good at. On and on and on my inner worrier worried.
By the time I made it to the desk I was practically beside myself.
The elderly office administrator filed through the papers until she found mine. She handed it to me and then watched over my shoulder as I lifted the cover sheet to reveal my mark on the examiners page (nosy old bag).
“Oh well done you!”
“Thanks.” I said and wandered out into the hall.
And I was happy. I had passed. I wasn’t going to be kicked out of graduate school. But do you know what my first thought was.
Where did I lose my 4%…..
Like I said…I was a monster. Rather than focusing on the incredible thing that had just happened and feeling the joy of my hard work paying off. I was focusing on the lack. I missed a whole 96% worth of happiness to dwell on a lost 4%.
Perfectionism was the beginning of the path to unhappiness for me. It stems from a belief in oneself as not being enough, just as we are today. The danger is, that as women we believe this makes us more successful.
But define success. When you are lying in a hospital bed, dying in your old age and reflecting on your life. Do you want to look back on your list of academic achievements, or do you want to look back on all the moments in which you were out-of-body happy.
To find happiness – we must give up on the be better conversation and practice the words this is enough today.
And then something magical happens. Once you let yourself off the hook. Once you are not indulging in an obsessive thought pattern that is wasting your precious energy, creativity is no longer blocked from you. Ideas begin to flow on their own. You are better able to hear the voice of your intuition – the beat of your heart – over the voice in your head. And you naturally become more successful.
However, this time you are able to be present to actually enjoy your successes.
But first we must be brave enough to release the perfectionist identity and the security that comes along with that. We have to step off the ledge and trust that we won’t fall, in fact we will soar higher. This can be a difficult step to take. Difficult, but also a relief. Because the perfection hamster wheel is exhausting.
What we don’t realise is that perfectionism is the lady who stops us time and time again from trying new things that may give us joy. Do you know why? Because we have to suck at something for a while before we get really good at it! To a perfectionist – sucking for a while sounds like agony. When I look back on some of my early writing and photos, I cringe.
But what if I had let that stop me from starting a little blog site full of photos and words. I never would have found my way back to the thing that has me jumping out of bed in the morning, excited for the day. I never would have found the thing that I lose hours on. And I might have never known such a level of peace.
I still hear the inner voice of my perfectionist, I always will. But now the voice of my soul is much wiser and stronger saying…
You did good Kid.
Much love xx