The Curse of Perfection
And how to free yourself from it
Those were the last words you heard before sinking into the watery void.
The armour that you wear — the one you thought would protect you from your fears, your insecurities, and your flaws, has now become the grave you will rest in.
But in these waters, you don’t drown. No. Here, when you sink into the dark abyss below, you stay there trapped on your own, alive but just. Every breath you take is filled with anxiety and doubt. There is no one else to save you.
That perfect armour of yours has dragged you down into the depths of depression.
Into the Void
I used to be a perfectionist. I was proud of it. To me, it meant that people around me would see the high standards I held for myself. And through holding these impossibly high standards for myself, I would one day become a paragon of my craft. For me, that craft was cooking and baking.
I used to love it. From learning about both the art and science of cooking and baking, reading all the cookbooks in the house. Of course, there was the actual cooking and baking too. I’d dedicate the entire day to it because I wanted everything to be perfect.
As a result, I’d often get very stressed out when it came time to serve, be it my family or friends, or worse — dinner guests. As the clock ticked down closer to dinner time, so did my anxiety skyrocket. Though my creations were generally received positively, that wasn’t enough and I beat myself over it.
I wanted to serve them the best food I could make and nothing short. I wanted them to have an experience they’d remember. I wanted it to be perfect. And the fact I wasn’t getting there was beginning to take a toll on me. I began cooking less often and baking wasn’t even on my mind anymore. When I did manage to muster the spirit to cook, I wasn’t enjoying it either.
The anxiety of trying to surpass expectations (ones that I made up in my mind) had got to me. I lost my passion for cooking and baking. I didn’t care for it anymore. The best I’d do is make an omelette or instant noodles. It wasn’t until much later that I learned losing interest in things you once enjoyed was a sign of depression.
And I was sinking into it.
The Perfect Armour
You have insecurities, fears, and flaws. Everyone does. But not to a perfectionist. For the sake of their ego, they want to be seen as the one. The one whose every action is a deliberate act of brilliance when it comes to their craft. Every thought, and every move is calculated to yield the perfect result. Every step must be put together at just right time. At least, this was in my head back then.
To fail achieving anything short of immediate success on the first go is to disgrace yourself. Over time, as you keep failing to create the perfect plan of reaching this impossible standard, your doubts and fears begin to cast a looming shadow over you.
You begin to second-guess yourself. Your confidence begins to crumble. To ward off the encroaching shadows, you summon a piece of armour that would protect you from them. Every time you failed to achieve the impossible standard, another piece appeared. Last time it was a gauntlet. This time it was shoulder plates.
Eventually, you would be fully cladded in this Perfect Armour designed to protect yourself from your own insecurities and flaws. How? It resists your fears by weighing you down. By keeping you in place. The slower you move, the longer it takes before you fail — and when you can’t move any longer, you can’t fail anymore.
So, there you are. Anchored in place, paralyzed from the pursuit of perfection. Unfortunately, the shadows you tried to escape have now pooled around you, forming a black puddle that begins expanding into an ocean. What was once steady ground in your mind becomes water, and in an instant, you plunge deep into the abyss.
You are sinking into depression now.
From the Void, Returned
Depression can drag you down into its cold and lonely chasm in many, many ways. In the case of perfectionism, my attempts to cover up my insecurities and flaws with Perfect Armour was why I was sinking. I knew I had to swim back up before I was too far gone. But first, I had break free from the armour that weighed me down.
It was fear of failing and the fear of imperfection that summoned this armour. To break it, I had to do what I feared the most then. I had to fail. I had to learn to embrace imperfection. I needed to kill the need to live up to this impossible standard.
How did I go about accomplishing this?
I found a passion I had buried long ago — writing. Writing filled the void that cooking left behind. It was in the beginning of this renewed passion that I found the opportunity to shatter the Perfect Armour.
When I first started writing on Medium I was afraid. I was insecure about my capability to write, and the same feelings of fear and anxiety began to return. “What if my writing is terrible? What if people hate it?” were the thoughts flowing through my mind as I was deciding to write my first piece.
Eventually, I figured out the best way start was to acknowledge the difficulty in starting and thus my first piece was born: Why starting is the hardest part (and how to overcome it). If you read that piece, you’ll see in the opening paragraph I acknowledge my fears at the time of writing.
As soon as I had published that piece, with it’s imperfections here and there, a piece of the Perfect Armour fell off and shattered, fading into nothing. I was still here. My work was still here. It was then I realised I did not need to produce perfection anymore. I just needed to produce what I loved.
I began writing more and more. Every time I wrote a new piece, another fragment of Perfect Armour broke off. I was getting lighter and I had stopped descending deeper. Now I could move. I could make it out of the abyss.
It was only a matter of time.
Becoming perfect is simply impossible. I have spent many moments pondering on what would perfection looks like. My conclusion is we don’t know. We just do not know what it means to be perfect and I think that’s the point of it. Perfection is meant to be unknowable and unattainable — it’s not something you do or become.
Ask any master of any craft what perfection looks like and they will probably give you the same answer: “I don’t know. I don’t know what it means to be perfect. So I practice every day to find out.” And that’s what it was meant for — a tool to help us look for improvements. It’s asking yourself “Can I do better next time?” and discovering how.
Now that I look back, I have come to realize that perfectionism was never about the craft. It was never about being a paragon of your passion. It was you fighting against your deepest fears. The fear of being judged and receiving criticism. The fear of failing and embarrassing yourself.
When it comes to doing something you have an interest in, you don’t need to be perfect to be good at it. You just need to love doing it.
Once you’ve accepted that, you will find yourself free from all the armour that weighed you down before. With every attempt made that you pour your heart and soul into, you rise a little higher from the void.
Pretty soon you’ll see.
With that perfect armour now left behind, you fight your way up. Breathing is becoming easier as the self-doubt melts away and the cloud of anxiety lifts. Then you see it — a tiny shimmer of light at the surface, and an arm extending an open hand, reaching for you as you rise.
“Was this the person who shouted those last words before I fell in?” your thoughts wondered as you reached closer to the open hand. The closer you got to the surface, the brighter and warmer it became. The embrace of the light was comforting after spending what felt like an eternity in the depths below.
Finally, you were close enough to reach the hand. You stretched out and grabbed on to it. It grabbed back and held tight. With one swift movement, you were pulled out of the water, back up to the surface and into the light.
Having been kept in darkness for so long, your eyes were blinded as you surfaced. Slowly, you began adjusting to the light and could see clearly again. You looked around for the person that pulled you out from the water, grateful for the helping hand they gave. There was no one to be found.
The floor of your mind had returned — no longer an expansive ocean of darkness. Perplexed, you sat down and pondered about what had just happened. Then the realization kicked in. It was you.
It was you that pulled yourself out from the abyss. It was you who told yourself to hold on as you sank. It was you that broke free from the Perfect Armour and fought your way back here.
It was you who saved yourself.
“Just a note to add here: Since breaking from my Perfect Armour, I have found myself cooking and baking a little more often now. Just recently finished baking a lemon butter cake that I’m proud of! Next up on my list I making some good comforting Hungarian Goulash!”