You’re in a job interview. The interviewer asks you, “Tell me, if you had to pick one, what’s one of your weaknesses?” Let’s be real: You’re not going to reveal one of your true weaknesses to a potential employer who you’re trying to impress. You only want to talk about your strengths, which is why you jump to the classic response: “I’m a perfectionist.”
This was my response every time a potential employer asked for a "weakness" of mine. It’s the majority of people’s responses when asked this question. We like it because it communicates that we are relentlessly hard-working and detail-oriented. Looking at it now, I am intrigued by the fact that perfectionism could ever be viewed as a strength.
My name is Nicole, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Typically, when I write blogs, they are purely informational. I do my research, and provide individuals with the what, why, and how as well as any actionable steps they can take to make a change in their lives. In this case, as someone who has dealt first hand with perfectionism, I decided to challenge myself to turn inward and open up about my own personal experience in the hopes that it resonates with any fellow perfectionists out there.
This is my story.
Perfectionism: How It StartedFrom a young age, I struggled to feel as though I was “enough.”
For one, the daughter of a 6’8” dad, I was always tall. While my height is something I have truly grown to feel confident in and that, now, I love, it was something that always made me feel awkward when I was younger. I often struggled to feel “pretty” enough. I struggled to feel “feminine” enough.
Additionally, by the time I had graduated high school, I had experienced a number of betrayals by close friends - people I trusted deeply. Instead of looking at their behavior as disappointing, I blamed myself. I thought that I must not have been enough: pretty enough, smart enough, successful enough, funny enough, fun enough, you name it. I was looking for any reason to make sense of it. In my mind, if I was enough, I would have been too valuable for them to cut me out of their lives.
The only time that I felt “enough” was when I accomplished something and received praise for it. Growing up, I was always praised for my achievements: high grades, successful performances, high extracurricular involvement. This is a theme that Brene Brown talks about in her book, The Gifts of Imperfections. She states, “Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.’”
“Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.’”
So, I began to associate love and belonging with doing rather than being. In order to be loved and accepted, I would need to excel in all things.
I needed to be the perfect student, I needed to have the perfect body, I needed to have the perfect diet, I needed to have the perfect boyfriend, I needed to have the perfect job, I needed to have tremendous career success, I needed to make a lot of money (and have material items that signified that), and I needed to be beautiful.
In essence, I had created an ideal version of myself. And, in my mind, only at that point would I finally be happy.
This “ideal version” of myself became my point of reference, my north star, and I became extremely hard on myself in my efforts to get there.
I stayed up all hours of the night to make sure I got As. I beat myself up when I missed a workout. I put myself on all sorts of strict diets (which ultimately ended in binge eating any chocolate I could get my hands on). I never stopped working, using off-hours to learn more about the industry I was in. And beauty wise, I was constantly judging myself, whether it was not being educated enough about skincare or not having my makeup “look” down.
It was exhausting. I was constantly down, constantly comparing my current self to who I could be.
And I never stopped to recognize when I did accomplish something. I set my sights high and would not allow myself to feel proud or happy until I “made it,” until I was “there.” I thought that, if I did stop to recognize my accomplishments, I would lose the motivation to continue making progress. Because, in my mind, why would I continue pushing myself if I was happy with where I stood? So I pushed on.
The Breaking Point
As you can imagine, I eventually crashed and burned. I was in a constant vicious cycle that went something like this:
I was exhausted, I was burned out, I was constantly moody, and I was getting nowhere. And the more I failed, the harder I would get on myself and the more rigid the goals.
And, finally, it happened: I hit my breaking point. I found myself sobbing on the bathroom floor, crushed under the weight of who I thought I needed to be and who I wasn’t. I felt completely hopeless, like I would never be happy, like I would never be loved.
And that was when my journey of self discovery started.
Self Discovery: Part I
I started going to therapy. I was against it at first. The perfectionist in me thought I could figure it out myself. And, being an Aries, I am extremely stubborn. But for the sake of bringing my family peace of mind, I went.
We began to unpack everything: how I was still wounded from friendships that I did not feel valued in, how I was made fun of and made to feel different because of my height.
I - and loved ones - always thought I was just striving to do my best, and I was often commended for it. In reality, from what I learned in therapy, I was striving to prove my worth and to protect myself. In my mind, if I had it all, no one could judge me, and no one could hurt me. Not only because, in my mind, there would be nothing others could reject me for, but also because, in actuality, it wasn’t me. It was a flashy distraction from my authentic self.
In the words of Brene Brown, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
I started to recognize that my unhappiness was stemming from a deep place of inauthenticity. What I strived for was not based on my interests, but rather based on what would impress others and distract them from who I truly was, which - in my mind - was not enough.
Self Discovery: Part II
For work, I attended a summit called the “Love Yourself Summit,” hosted by Entity Magazine. Throughout the day, there were a variety of women who spoke about important topics, including confidence, body positivity, mental health, and more. I enjoyed all of it; however, there was one speaker in particular who impacted my outlook.
Her name is Amanda Huggins, also known as @thefeistyyogi. She is an anxiety and self worth coach as well as a yoga and meditation teacher. In between speakers, she was brought in to do a quick guided meditation. I was tempted to use the break to grab food (because, well, FOOD), but I decided to stay.
She proceeded to guide us through a meditation in which we were challenged to envision meeting our higher selves. I know what you're thinking: This sounds “woo woo" af. But, in all honesty, it changed my life.
I envisioned this person (my “higher” self) smiling, laughing - what appeared to be finally happy. She was playful, beaming with light. She projected an immense energy - this sense of pure joy, love, and overwhelming warmth. She was at peace, her cup was full, and there was this sense that any overflow only brought out the light and joy in others.
Then, we were instructed to envision hugging our “higher” selves. It was symbolic of our current self and “higher” self melding together as one. We were not separate entities. Rather, we were on the same team. That higher self already existed within me. All I had to do was access it.
As someone who had only ever envisioned this higher self as a separate self, this was extremely powerful for me. It was no longer someone I had to strive to be (and a constant reminder of how I was failing). Rather, she was me. I was already her. It was like someone had finally given me permission to stop and love myself.
It was no longer someone I had to strive to be (and a constant reminder of how I was failing). Rather, she was me. I was already her. It was like someone had finally given me permission to stop and love myself.
Because it wasn’t about the perfect job, or the fancy car, or the money. The person I envisioned had none of those things. It was about her core, her spirit, her energy, who she was as a person deep down. And that was someone I was truly proud of. And, at the end of the day, no matter what my external circumstances, I knew she had my back, and that was enough.
The Mental Shift
What I had been doing before was clearly not working. And between my experience in therapy and at the Love Yourself Summit, I was feeling more inspired to make a change.
These are the ways that I slowly but surely began to shift my thinking, ultimately helping me to live a healthier, happier life, more balanced life:
(1) Be mindful of that pesky little voice in your head:
There are two huge misconceptions about this little voice in your head: (1) that it is you and (2) that it is true.
(2) Speak to yourself as though you were speaking to a friend:
(3) Lean into the discomfort:
As funny as it sounds, it was hard for me. I felt anxiety creep up and this constant pull within me to go do anything that would “improve” my current self.
(4) Practice Self Care:
Since implementing true acts of self care into my routine, I can honestly say I have been so much kinder to myself. I enjoy the things I used to dislike, I appreciate the qualities that I do have more, and I (ironically) feel I am achieving better results, only furthering my levels of self love.
It's simple: When you treat yourself better, you think more highly of yourself.
To all of my fellow perfectionists out there, I hope that this is helpful to you on some level. Comment below with any questions you may have, and I would be happy to provide any insight based on my experience.
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