Today I’ve decided to write about one of the things with the biggest impact on our mental health: perfectionism. Defined by APA as the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.
It is a topic long discussed in the field of psychology and cognitive sciences. A personality feature with its own scales to be measured. But, most importantly, it is part of our everyday life, and it affects us all, aware of it or not.
I’ve been a perfectionist for literally all my life, asking a lot from the others, and even more from myself. Because it felt like the right thing to do, the way to evolve, to improve. I’ve been convinced that the only way to be a better person is to be more: to do more, to get involved more, to know more and more, about all things that make you curious. There was always room for improvement, and it still is.
But only when I have lost everything that felt important to me I got to discover that I was, for so long in my life, hanging on a poisoned thread. When everything left with me was the perfectionism screaming in the sleepless nights, telling me that I’m a complete failure.
That I’ve failed myself and everyone else who’s believed in me and my ability of making this life feel worth living. That I am a disappointment, and I have to work harder than ever to gain back all that I’ve lost. That only if I will become twice as good as I used to be before I failed and ruined everything, I will take back the things I’ve lost. That the guilt I was feeling for what happened is the only legitimate feeling, the only thing that I’m supposed to feel.
Easy to say that this whole speech was no good. That it only brought back issues that I have been feeling like I’ve overcome. That every little progress achieved in the past years felt like gone for good. That not the period when I’ve lost the main things that used to give me a feeling of meaning was the peak of the fall, but the period when the perfectionist inside me started to have its monologue over and over.
Obviously, I tried my best to diminish that: had numerous attempts of losing the weight I’ve gained in my depressive period, tried to dive into the freelance writing thing, and started to keep a diary where I was rating my weeks, in order to see how things go. It was supposed to be my recovery diary, but it was nothing like that. In fact, taking a look at what I’ve been writing there, I see no progress, but self-sabotage, self-doubt and guilt. A lot of self-blame, too.
One of the most relevant fragments about the way my perfectionism almost destroyed me sounds like this: I want to believe that everything will be alright, that I didn’t lose everything, but it sounds so fake. I know, sometimes I forget the fact that I’m really, really young, but do I really have enough time left to fix everything?
I’m sure that everyone had moments when it felt like this, but the thing is that, even so, being a perfectionist isn’t, till now, seen as a problematic trait. In fact, we’re encouraged by everything around us to give our best, day after day, caught up in a so-called successful thinking spiral.
You have to work more, to learn more, to achieve more, to do more. Day after day. Ain’t nothing wrong about a person trying to make every single aspect of its life to be close to perfection. In fact, it’s a model to be followed, as that person works hard to improve her life. And this is one of the most important things we should get rid of: the belief that perfectionism means improvement.
This is how you discover that there’s more to that definition. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems. And it comes to a moment when you get to be fully aware about these things, usually when you get to experience them yourself.
At a certain point, it is just the logical aftermath: you try to make everything perfect, so you get frustrated when your attempts are failing. This, if it often happens enough, brings up the feeling of unworthiness, and we all try to cope with it in our own ways. And I had to become tired, completely tired, in order to understand that the way to progress is not perfectionism, but patience. That, actually, being a perfectionist is nothing to brag about, but rather a toxic personality trait that one should be aware of and try to manage.
Because my history with being a perfectionist girl is not only my story. It is a small fragment of a collective narrative telling us daily that, in order to be worthy- of appreciation, of respect, of love, we have to work hard in our attempt of becoming perfect beings.
That you’ll receive more as you’ll do more. That only the weak people have bad days or bad periods of time. That the second place is a loser and the first place is the only one worth considering. The all or nothing narrative, the toxic speech of a perfectionist generation, raising other perfectionists, which have, somehow, to address to other types of challenges.
This is how everything begins, by understanding that being a perfectionist can be a huge trigger for things that you’d never want to experience. That it is not the price you have to pay for a successful life. That you don’t have to glorify a toxic trait if you feel like it puts you in a bad place, mentally and emotionally.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s the trick: there’s a difference between trying to do your best in a situation, and trying to reach the perfection. And the difference comes from the fact that doing your best is human, natural, subjective and imperfect. Perfection is just an invention. It is a fiction, a very loved one, but with nothing human in it. We’re not born to be perfect, we’re born to be the best people we could be, and that’s something that changes day after day.
Sometimes your best means that you got out of bed and went to work, when you’ve cried all night before it and just wanted to end it. And there are times when your best makes you proud of yourself, and the whole life seems to glow. Life is not linear, and it is not made to be linear, and trying to make it perfect is the perfect recipe of giving up on the little joys that make it beautiful, human, and, at the end of the day, worth living.