The Pitfall of Perfectionism — How I Escaped.
How trying to be the best kept me from being any good at all and the self-centered practices that helped me improve.
Within a few years of graduating college, I already felt like a failure. I hadn’t gone to an Ivy league school. I had stayed in my hometown in Montana. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and I felt too old to start all over.
Around that time, Facebook took off. All of a sudden, there were a thousand new ways to see the external accomplishments of my peers:
The kid that went to Harvard was playing shows at Carnegie hall.
The shy girl from 4th grade was now a fighter pilot.
The popular girl from grade school was on track to be in the Olympics. One day, while running in the woods, she was attacked by a bear — who she fought off by hitting it in the face with a rock until it left her alone. She ran 14 miles home, unharmed save for a couple of scratches. (This earned her an interview spot on the Today show in New York, where she looked gorgeous as always). Later, I found out she went on a date with the guy who dumped me.
My peers were becoming successful, remarkable, and educated. They were even becoming bear fighters.
When I compared myself to them, I felt overwhelming fear that I wasn’t doing or being enough.
My fear turned into anxiety. Which turned into panic attacks. Which turned into isolation as I avoided social situations out of fear of being “found out” as not good enough. I looked at everyone else’s perfect and happy lives and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have the same.
Perfectionism had gotten the best of me, and I hit rock-bottom. I became afraid of attempting anything that had even the smallest risk of failure.
I spent my days hiding in my apartment, afraid of everything that awaited me in the outside world. I’d spend hours searching the internet trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just be brave? Why did I always feel so broken?
After months of misery, I felt like I’d fallen so far behind my peers — enough to where I would never, ever catch up — that I did the only rational thing I could think of (and probably the first rational thing I’d done in a while): quit.
I quit following people who were doing amazing things. I quit checking my Facebook. I quit trying to compete with anyone but myself.
And it changed my entire life.
Becoming your own worthy comparison
I always looked at people around me and thought, “They’re so much smarter, more successful, and good looking. I bet it feels great to be them.”
But spending the weekend at the home of someone I looked up to changed that.
He was (and still is) one of the most intelligent people in his field. He’s admired by everyone who knows him for his perfect looks, perfect business savvy, perfect family, and wealth. I was invited to stay at his house with a close mutual friend. Though I’d never met him myself, I followed everything he did, and was giddy to see what it was like to have the perfect life.
It took less than 3 hours before the social niceties of new acquaintances wore off.
Soon he was talking down to his kids and wife. He was stressed. He was sharing how miserable he felt. He thought someone else was doing better than him and he needed to do things differently to compete. He talked endlessly about it.
Somehow his perfect family, job, body, home, and education didn’t quench his thirst for perfection. He still didn’t feel worthy.
That’s when I had a realization.
If all these remarkable accomplishments hadn’t made him happy or feel good enough, what did it say about all the other people who I looked at as having better lives than me? This guy who seemed to “have it all” was comparing and competing with others, just like me.
After that weekend, I found myself with a new lens to look at life.
Instead of looking at other people to set my benchmarks, I started sitting down with myself regularly and asking:
What am I spending most of my time and energy on right now?
Am I doing this because I want to, or because I’m trying to compete with or please someone else?
Is what I’m doing making me feel worthy and valuable? If not, how can I stop doing it?
Am I doing what I said I would do to reach my goals? If not, is my goal too big or perfectionistic? How can I make it more reasonable?
Are my actions more in line with who I want to be today than they were yesterday?
Notice these questions focus on my own happiness, and not someone else’s. They also focus less on how I feel and more on how I behave, because I’ve found feelings and beliefs follow behaviors, not the other way around.
These questions helped me choose goals that brought me happiness (and stopped me from focusing on people who I thought were doing better than me).
But more importantly, they also changed how I interacted with the people who were “doing worse than me”, which is how I learned the next thing about perfectionism.
When you stop criticizing others, you stop criticizing yourself.
One day a friend told me: “Just because someone is wrong, doesn’t mean it’s my job to tell them so.”
My first reaction was disbelief. “Of course it’s your job to tell them they’re wrong! If you don’t tell them, they’ll keep perpetuating the wrongness. Whatever they do that is bad will spread like a disease. If I tell them they’re wrong, I’m doing what’s right for everyone.”
Even after leaving the conversation, the conversation wouldn’t leave me.
So I sat down with a pen and paper and I tried to think of examples of when someone had “set me straight” or given me unwarranted feedback or advice.
Most of the memories, I didn’t remember their feedback, only that it made me feel shitty and unworthy.
So why did I spend so much time correcting or calling out other people? Giving them advice and my feedback when they hadn’t asked for it?
At first, I thought it was because I wanted to “help” them.
But really, I was correcting people to feel like I was better than them. I was trying to be seen as valuable and smart.
I was seen as an asshole.
What’s worse, is my worthiness depended on feeling like I had the the higher ground to critique everyone else. So every time I made a mistake (whether someone called it out or not) I lost all of my worthiness.
The paper in front of me had revealed the vicious cycle I was on:
I felt poorly about myself, so I would critique other people, or give them advice to feel better about myself (which, for the record, did not work in raising my self esteem). Then I’d feel like I needed to be perfect in order to maintain the hierarchy. Then, when I inevitably made a mistake, my worthiness crumbled and I became anxious and depressed.
To break the cycle, I had to start with what I could control: not criticizing other people.
When I stopped calling out other people’s mistakes and trying to force my advice on people, my hierarchy began to crumble.
I stopped feeling better than people when I noticed they made a mistake. And I stopped feeling constantly horrible when someone caught my mistakes.
As I began to like myself — flaws and all — I gained the confidence to start creating again. To start contributing my experience and talent to the world.
But I was surprised to find that it wasn’t my perfectly curated work that ended up lowering my anxiety about being perfect.
Share your shitty work.
The act of sharing my thoughts, my work, or my skills with the world has always scared me.
I always believed that if someone doesn’t like my work it means they don’t like me. Not being likable is a perfectionist’s greatest fear.
So I often abandoned a skill before I mastered it, because I always fell short of perfect.
The first 10% of a skill was fun. I’d show and tell everyone, because I knew that it didn’t matter if I sucked; after all, I had just started.
But when I’d hit 11% — 80% of learning a skill, I’d suck and I’d know it, and I couldn’t do any better.
I’d know what being good at the skill looked like, and I’d see what my work looked like, and I would feel ashamed that I wasn’t better.
I didn’t want people to know that I wasn’t perfect, so I would just stop trying and start something new.
If I started something else, I could once again regain that 10% of freedom to suck.
So at 22 years old, I had essentially no skills. I could do a very tiny bit of everything. But I wasn’t even mediocre at any of it.
The only way I’ve been able to progress, to build skills, to move forward and feel valuable is to embrace and show off the sucky stuff.
If my perfectionist side had it’s way, no one would ever see any of the work I’ve done.
So when I give my partner the first draft of an article I’m writing, I usually hate the piece and think it should never see the light of day.
While there’s usually a lot of editing to do, he almost always points out something he likes. It’s also helped me learn how to separate critiques from my own self-worth.
When someone sees my shitty work and still likes me, it exercises my ability to deal with my own mistakes and like myself despite them.
It also helps me take feedback and learn how to incorporate other perspectives, rather than thinking that I always know what’s best.
And it helps me get things out into the world, instead of waiting to share them until they’re perfect.
If I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable enough to share my shitty work, I’d be on my deathbed still deleting and re-writing the first article I ever published.
By focusing on my own goals and progress, sharing my shitty work with people I trust, and not criticizing other people, I’ve found myself happier, healthier, and less anxious.
It took time and practice, and I’m still figuring it out. I’m not perfect at trying not to be perfect.
But now when I ask myself questions like — “Are my actions in line with who I want to be today? Is what I’m creating valuable? Do I know that I’m worthy?” — the answer, I’m proud to say, is usually “Yes”.
If you’re as riddled with perfection inspired anxiety as I was, you might feel like there’s no way out.
But there is. You just have to take the first step. I’ve put together a free panic attack checklist to help to show you how.
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