“Every morning I wake up and pray I can do everything on my ‘to do’ list – and do it perfectly – only to collapse into bed in the early hours of the morning feeling discouraged and feeling like a failure.” Thirty-year-old Emma remembers her childhood cupboards – colour-coded clothing and ordered underwear drawers. For as long as she remembers, order equalled control. “I think I started life as a perfectionist. My parents, who were probably so relieved to have a neat child in the house, encouraged it. No-one ever thought But it is. Emma works herself to the bone – cleaning and re-cleaning, making sure her home is spotless, her work is flawless and her appearance is magazine-airbrushed quality. No stripes or checks for her – “if they don’t match up, and they seldom do, I feel messy.” She’s always believed that people are judging her by her outward appearance. If things aren’t ‘perfect’, “I feel like people think I’m lazy and a slob.” We’re often told that we shouldn’t worry about what people think of us, that in reality most people aren’t thinking of us at all because they have too many of their own issues, but for perfectionists like Emma, this is easier said than done. “People who strive to be perfect judge themselves and their actions very harshly, and believe others do the same”, says SADAG’s Cassey Chambers. “The problem is that while we joke about being a perfectionist, or laugh about people who are ‘too neat and organised’, this trait can lead to self-destructive behaviour.”
We tend to get confused between perfectionists and high achievers, says SADAG. And there is a difference. Perfectionism – needing to be or appear perfect – doesn’t act as healthy motivation for reaching goals, and needing to be ‘perfect’ is not adaptive or healthy. In fact, studies say, perfectionism can contribute to psychopathology like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, even suicide. Emma knows just how slippery that slope can be. “Nothing was good enough, I wasn’t good enough. Everything I did, even if I did it well, just provided more evidence that I wasn’t perfect”, she says. She remembers doing an Honours assignment, working for weeks on it, and getting a distinction. Rather than proving to her how good she was, it reinforced her inadequacy – “If I really was that great, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard for that mark.” Perfectionists set high goals and work hard toward them, but unlike the high achiever, they aren’t satisfied with doing a great job. Nothing less than ‘perfection’ here, ‘almost perfect’ is perceived to be as bad as outright failure.
When Emma moved into her own apartment, finances were tight. “I made or adapted
most of my clothing, baked my own bread, did anything to save money but all the while
was trying to be the perfect bachelorette. I do expect a lot from myself – far more than I
expect of anyone else – but I felt overburdened.” She started slipping into depression.
While friends and relatives begged her not to be so hard on herself, Emma took that as a
sign she needed to be better at who and what she was. “I saw every remark as a failure
and a criticism, and with every failure, I became more depressed. And then I got angry
because I was ‘failing’ even more.”2
Perfectionists set goals that aren’t always reasonable or realistically achievable. “High
achievers set their goals high but they have fun getting there and move the goalposts to
challenge themselves”, says Chambers. “Perfectionists often set their initial goals out of
reach.” People like Emma are so terrified of failure that they see the goal and nothing
else. The idea of growing and learning from the journey doesn’t apply – it’s all or it’s
nothing. Failure is a very scary prospect. Perfectionists like Emma believe that you are
what you achieve. “I beat myself up over tiny errors and never bounced back or learned
from disappointments.” Perfectionism and procrastination tend to go hand in hand.
“Fearing failure as much as they do, many perfectionists will worry so much about doing
something imperfectly that they freeze and don’t do anything at all”, says Chambers .
“One day I told a friend that I really didn’t want much in life – just perfection. When she
asked me what I saw as perfect I said a completely organized home with nothing out of
place, colleagues who were disciplined and dedicated to their work, and did their work
flawlessly, and a fiancé who stuck to all his obligations and commitments and adhered to
a schedule.” Emma was stunned by her friend’s response. “You just described my hell.”
It finally dawned on Emma that she was miserable because she was expecting the world
to match her expectations when even she couldn’t do it. “Of course any constructive
criticism was taken defensively but ultimately my striving for an ideal I couldn’t attain,
and my low self-esteem combined and threatened to destroy me.”
For perfectionists, life is an endless score card; a constant judgement on accomplishments
or looks. After repeated mistakes at work, constant fighting with her fiancé, and longer
days with less sleep, Emma called SADAG (0800 20 50 26) and got some help.
Recognizing that a change may be in order is a very important first step toward creating
real happiness and contentment. “I’m getting to the point where, although I’m still tough
on myself, I can say that ‘almost perfect’ is pretty good!”