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Confessions of a Perfectionist

Photo by Oleg Ti
When there are no enemies within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you. ~African proverb

Treating myself kindly is not something that comes naturally to me.

From a young age, I believed I needed to be perfect to be any good. It was probably a combination of my natural type A tendencies and my family environment. My younger brother had a lot of problems when he was a kid, struggled in school, and often acted out. He was always in trouble.

My parents were probably happy to have one child who made things easy for them. I always did well in school, always behaved, and always followed the rules.

Everything seemed great up through high school. I got straight A’s without studying too hard, excelled on my school’s water polo team, and was a respected leader in my class. I was accepted to go to college at Harvard, and thought I was pretty special.

Being a perfectionist caught up with me, though. When I got to Harvard, I was immediately knocked off my high horse by people much smarter and more talented than I was.I signed up for pre-med courses but failed my first few chemistry tests. I studied harder, but couldn’t get anything better than a B. I was no longer a star on my water polo team, and instead struggled for even a few minutes of playing time.

My first reaction to this stress was to try harder. I studied harder, worked out harder, and made all sorts of rules for myself. I had to study a certain number of hours a day, I had to get certain grades, and I had to perform at a certain level in water polo practice.

If I didn’t meet my standards, I felt worthless, good-for-nothing, and perhaps the worst insult at all – mediocre.

Unsurprisingly, I became incredibly anxious. It would take me hours to fall asleep, and I’d lie awake in bed, feeling like my heart was going to pound out of my chest. When I finally did fall asleep, I dreamed of organic chemistry molecules swirling around in my head.

I could only keep up the harsh schedule I demanded of myself for so long. As I started to fizzle out, the anxiety turned into a profound depression. I hardly slept. I cried every day, for no reason. I felt hopeless. I hated myself.

Two months into my junior year, I felt so awful that I left school. I dropped out of my classes, left all my friends, and went home.

Emotionally, I felt like I was starting from scratch. For years, I had built my entire sense of self worth on external accomplishments. Now that I didn’t have this external validation, I had to start over.

The key I was missing was kindness. And not kindness just toward others, but kindness toward myself. Compassion starts with treating yourself kindly.

In all my fear of being mediocre, and in my belief that being average somehow meant I wasn’t good enough, I failed to realize an important truth – that people who are extraordinarily compassionate are rarely average.

So if, like me, you have a tendency to be self-critical or perfectionistic, how to do retrain your brain to treat yourself kindly?

1. Practice Gratitude

If you’re feeling self-critical, you might be focusing on the negative things you perceive about yourself as opposed to the positive. I know when I felt depressed, I focused on everything I felt that I lacked as opposed to all the amazing things I had. Practicing gratitude can redirect your focus to the positive things in your life.

Take a few minutes to write down everything you appreciate – maybe your family, your friends, your health, your work, your own natural abilities or talents – whatever makes a personal connection with you.

If you’re in a slump, try practicing this exercise on a daily basis (I like first thing in the morning).

Every morning, write out your list. It might feel forced at first, but keep doing it. With practice, you may start to realize that the positive in your life outweighs the negative. And the negative becomes more tolerable when you see how there are so many things to be appreciative of.

2. Recheck Reality

When I treated myself harshly, I sometimes justified it by saying I was being objective — but the truth is I was being pessimistic. I made assumptions that if I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t worth anything, and only focused on information that reinforced these assumptions.

We need to challenge these negative assumptions and examine what the reality of the situation is. For example, take a look at these common negative assumptions people make about themselves:

  • If I’m overweight, I’m worthless or a bad person.
  • If my business doesn’t succeed, it means I’m a failure.
  • I’m not in a relationship, so that means there must be something wrong with me.

Imagine if a friend came to you with a concern like this. You might think, “Wow, they’re being so hard on themselves!” But the problem is we do this to ourselves all the time.

Imagine what you would say to your friend to comfort them and realign their perceptions with reality. Maybe:

  • If I’m overweight, I’m worthless or a bad person –> Being overweight means there’s an imbalance in what you’re eating versus what you’re burning off, so you could try a different diet or exercise approach, but doesn’t reflect on your character or take away from what you contribute to the people around you.
  • If my business doesn’t succeed, it means I’m a failure –> Many first businesses fail, and those people go on to create successful businesses down the road, so give it your best and if it doesn’t work, keep trying!
  • I’m not in a relationship, so that means there must be something wrong with me –> Most people go through a serious of relationships that don’t work out before they find one that does, and not being in a relationship now doesn’t mean you won’t meet someone in the future.

Practice identifying the automatic negative assumptions you make in your day-to-day life, and then challenge them — what is the reality, and what is the truth?

3. Learn to Forgive

There’s a lot of talk about the benefits of forgiving other people who have wronged us, so we can let go of the pain that harboring resentment causes. It’s just as important to learn how to forgive ourselves for mistakes we may have made and for the imperfections we will always have.

People with perfectionistic tendencies will usually want to push their mistakes out of their mind instead of facing them head on, but much more strength comes from facing and accepting these imperfections.

When you learn to forgive yourself, and accept things you may not like, you become a stronger person, a more confident person, and a more compassionate person. This compassion can be directed not just toward yourself, but toward all the people around you.

4. Appreciate the Lessons You’ve Learned

One important way to face and accept past mistakes is to realize how much you have learned from these experiences.

If I hadn’t gone through such a tough time when I was in college, I never would have been motivated to develop a healthier way of treating myself. I would have kept on expecting perfection and being disappointed when I didn’t live up to my standards.

But because I struggled so deeply, I couldn’t help but realize there was something wrong with my view of the world. I was forced to learn an important lesson.

We usually learn the most from our biggest struggles and our biggest mistakes. If you’re having a hard time accepting a mistake you’ve made, think about how much you have grown from the experience, and how you now have knowledge to help others in similar situations.

5. Allow Flexibility

One of the most important skills I’ve learned in my adult life, and that I continue to learn on a daily basis, is how to be flexible.

When you are rigid about how you think things should be, it closes off your heart. Everyday occurrences become frustrations. Too much time is wasted being irritated at things outside your control.

Instead, cultivate flexibility. Allowing imperfections will make you a kinder person, both in terms of how you treat yourself, and how you interact with the world.

I work on being more flexible by practicing the “80% rule” (something I highly encourage for all the perfectionists out there). When I’m working on a task or project, instead of obsessing about making it perfect, I’ll ask myself, “Is this 80% good?” If so, I let myself be happy about what I’ve done and move on to the next thing.

Back when I dropped out of school, I went from constantly studying, working out, or going to class to sitting around at my parents house, without much to do. I had a lot of time to reflect.

I wish I could say I figured everything out right away, but I didn’t. It took a long time to internalize the above lessons. I had spent years reinforcing bad habits, and it took years to learn healthier ones.

I spent the rest of the semester at home, and then returned to Harvard for the Spring. By this point I was starting to come out of the depression. I felt there was hope. Everyday was a little bit better than the last.

A few years later I graduated with a degree in psychology. I took time off to travel and work before going to medical school, and now am in my 3rd year of psychiatry residency at UCLA.

I’ve never felt as fulfilled and happy with my work and life as I do now, but I sometimes need to remind myself of where I’ve been, so I don’t go back there again.

Learning to treat yourself kindly is a lifelong journey. Every day you work at it a bit more, and every day is better than the last.

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About the author

Elana Miller, MD is a psychiatry resident, writer, and entrepreneur-in-progress who talks about strategies to be happy, live well, and fulfill your greatest potential at Zen Psychiatry. Her secret life goal is to move to Nicaragua and practice telepsychiatry.

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7 thoughts on Confessions of a Perfectionist

  1. Great post!

    My father served in the U.S. Army, was a Type A personality and perfectionist. Growing up, I heard him say, “If it’s not perfect, it’s not right.” Or, “Do some thing right the first time and you won’t have to go back and redo it.” Of course, I inherited the Type A personality, to a point. :)

    I’ve accepted that I can be a perfectionist and that it’s okay. I don’t hate myself for it, but I remind myself to “lighten up.” This usually does the trick along with reading one of my quotes, which is, “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” ? Albert Einstein

    Accept, love, and forgive your inner perfectionist. Once you do, your life will be easier.

  2. I know a lot of perfectionists, especially when I was back in high school. It was insane because looking back, I was right when I said none of it will matter. Well, not none of it but you get my point.

    I was always a fan of working smarter not harder. This basically translates (in the context of high school) as putting in the work that’s needed when it’s needed, but you don’t have to go 120% on EVERYTHING.

    Perfectionists don’t get that and it’s quite scary to see because it limits flexibility (which is important like you pointed out.)

  3. Olu

    I meet people daily that are frustrated over other people’s actions. They stress over how they think things should be and they sadly walk around with unrealistic expectations, wasting life away on things outside their control.

    There must be a reason why we were made unable to read each other’s mind. We need all the time to perfect our own first and get the best out of it.

    This is such a great post.

  4. Great post. I have been struggling with perfectionism for some time now. Perfectionism is a lot like a parasite that slowly sucks away at our emotions while the validation feedback serves to hide it. We don’t realize it’s there until we start to break down.

  5. Thanks for such a great post, I can personally relate to perfectionism firing up anxiety within myself. I have to remember that every silly little detail doesn’t always matter, perfectionism can be such a soul sucking personality trait, I work everyday to let it go.

  6. Heather

    I felt like you were writing about me when I read it. I also had an “easy” childhood with good grades and a brother with special needs so I didn’t bother my family with my own problems. I then went into university with the same struggles but graduated as a veterinarian, where everyone including myself expects 100% from me.
    I’ve not yet figured out how to take care of myself as well as I do others. I always feel like I can sacrifice myself to do the best I can for my patients and family, because that has been my norm. It leaves me with an internal dialogue that I don’t let out. I will try to write a gratitude journal and start there. Hopefully this path takes me to a place where I can feel like I haven’t neglected my duties while caring for myself.
    Thank you.

  7. Anish Kumar

    That was a nice biography. Same similar things have happened in my life too.
    Now, got some idea how to deal with it.
    Looking for your new post in future.

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