I used to see myself as all my shortcomings and held my many flaws against myself. I saw imperfection when I turned within. The inadequacies were all I focused on.
We’re taught that we have to be perfect from a young age. Our minds, bodies, lifestyle, everything about us should be top notch. Like we’ve got to have an incredible body, be married to some insanely awesome person, raise two incredible kids, have a successful career, live in an enviable house, own brand new stuff, go on holiday six times a year, be social AND family orientated, all whilst being humble, stable, non-stressed out, full shit together.
I’m exhausted just typing it. And for me it engrained a sense of never feeling good enough.
Many people are motivated by high standards
A drive to achieve more in life, a strive to be successful, to look and feel better. Perfectionism in these forms isn’t necessarily unhealthy. It is known as adaptive perfectionism and some researchers argue that this isn’t even perfectionism at all, it’s conscientiousness.
But where perfectionism can sway towards becoming toxic to mental health is when the actions taken to achieve this are never seen as good enough. When we don’t ever feel like we’re meeting the goal, or we shuffle the benchmark mid-achieving and continuously extend the goal posts in a way that feels forever frustrating and debilitating. This is known as maladaptive perfectionism, which is also linked to people experiencing significantly higher rates of burnout and mental health struggles.
Maladaptive perfectionism has this ironic way of being all about success. Wanting to achieve more and be better, in fact the best we can ever be, yet at the same time actually being a culprit for our own defeat. The tendency to be a maladaptive perfectionist brings with it a number of health issues. The data shows this to include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, insomnia, feelings of hopelessness and even suicide. And then there is another side of this coin, where mental illness can actually create the perfect environment for maladaptive perfectionism tendencies to appear.
So perfectionism itself is complicated. It’s healthy high standards vs. toxic unrealistic standards
It isn’t behavioural, it’s in the way we think about ourselves and what we do and in how we do it. It’s that inner voice and how critically it regards all that we do.
Over the past few years I’ve begun asking myself, ‘What is perfection?’ What does it even mean to be perfect? Does perfect exist? I think not, actually. It’s an illusion similar to reaching for the moon. A dream we might hope for, that one day we can touch and embrace. It’s so easy to get disheartened when it feels so far and unattainable. But the bit that really matters, is that we are showing up, reaching out, whilst comfortably knowing that we will never get there.
Today, in this moment, I accept that I’m a masterpiece and a work in progress
Complete, but also learning and growing. I’ve had to reframe the many ‘imperfections’ I’ve seen in myself, and positively reaffirm that I’m okay. I’m not perfect, but that really is alright, because every day I’m trying to be better. Better is good enough. And perfect, doesn’t exist anyhow. To be imperfect, is to be human. Plus if I keep concentrating my time on hating all my flaws, the mistakes I’ve made, all the wrongs, the things I am yet to achieve. I’ll never spend any seeing all the good in me.
I’ll get lost again in that continuous pressure to be perfect. Aiming for more accomplishments, bigger milestones, a slimmer body, better success, newer stuff. Things that made me feel like perfection was possible, but that didn’t always heighten my potential, they often undermined, exhausted and depleted it. I felt worse, because all it was really doing was setting me up for failure. As one area of my life seemed to find balance, another would be off kilter, and my need to correct that became an obsession. I had an unhealthy relationship with perfectionism, because it felt like a mandatory requirement. Failure just wouldn’t do. Sub-satisfactory wasn’t an option. The only way to do life was perfectly perfect in every way, at every single stage.
And every time I didn’t feel that happened, I would lose myself in shame, embarrassment and guilt
Like when I went to University because it felt like the thing to do, even though deep down I hadn’t a clue what I wanted from my life yet, and then when I dropped out after the first year, I felt all this shame that’s taken years to shake off. Then I failed again when I got divorced in my thirties. When I spent years on every diet possible to lose weight because my body didn’t ever feel good enough, and felt ashamed of it all the time because I struggled with my appearance and not meeting what I perceived was a beauty ideal. I internalized my mental health struggles because to declare my mind wasn’t in a good state at times, was to admit an imperfection. There are countless times I can recall that my requiring to be perfect, made me feel awful instead of good.
I’m not alone with this struggle. Katie Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University said, “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists,” and “We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.”
According to WHO, mental illness is more common now in places like the UK, US and Canada than it was a decade ago, and perfectionism is heavily linked to mental health illnesses
Numerous studies have also found that thinking more about suicide is linked to perfectionism. Because when people feel they aren’t ever good enough, are concerned by mistakes and failures, have high personal standards, or have critical support networks, feel judged or that their social world isn’t good enough, this combined pressure creates an environment where suicide is thought of in more lethally favourable terms. For those of you who’ve read my other blogs, you already know that any subject which negatively impacts mental health and wellbeing, is something I’m all in for talking about more.
Perfectionism is undoubtedly complicated. I’ve definitely swayed from adaptive to maladaptive perfectionism throughout my life
And I certainly recognize that at times, my way of dealing with high stress or emotional situations is to invest all my time and energy into making sure other areas of my life are ‘perfect’ to offset the seriously ‘non-perfect’ elements. So I’ve certainly used this as a stress coping mechanism. I’m not saying we all do this, I’m not saying which type of perfectionist you may or may not be. I just found the data interesting and thought I’d share. Because my inner voice has been more critical than encouraging over the past decade, and I’ve struggled with a need to be perfect at different stages of my life. I’m a perfectionist in general at heart. So to not mark yourself as deficient when you are anything but perfect is challenging. But I’m reframing the way I view myself.
I’m no longer aiming for perfect, and going for trying my best instead
Showing up, making effort, and that counts. That’s good enough for me. I am imperfect and by embracing my flaws I know I will feel happier and more at peace with myself.
Yes I am still going to make mistakes. I won’t get it right all the time. But I like that I’m able to admit when I’m wrong and that I will learn from them. I have hopes and dreams that haven’t been realized yet, but I work for them every day. But I also know that I don’t have to work myself into the ground to prove anything to anyone. To be imperfect is not a bad thing and I’m going to stop telling myself as such. I’m a beautiful mess. Inside and out. And every day I am learning to like imperfectly perfect me a little more.
“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” – Brené Brown
Are you a perfectionist? Do you feel more adaptive or maladaptive in the scientific sense? In casual terms, is it making you feel good or like shit? Or are you on s similar journey of learning to like imperfectly perfect you?