I am a perfectionist in recovery.
When I was 24, I told my life-long friend Chelsea that I was completely over my perfectionism. She raised her eyebrows at me. “You are not fooling anyone, honey,“ she said knowingly. Her statement wasn't completely true, because I was fooling myself for a few months there.
Ten years later, I am coming to accept that I will probably be a perfectionist in recovery for my whole life!
Trying to be perfect began at a young age. I thought I had to earn love by being good. It was my coping mechanism to cover up the darkness inside.
Deep down, I feared I was bad. An abusive adult (my friend's dad) taught me that I was worthless. He taught me to keep secrets and harbor shame. He taught me to wear a mask and pretend everything was running smoothly.
How I clung to that mask. If I could just be perfect in every way, I could keep the darkness at bay. I could hold up my world. I could make sure no one saw my true, shameful self.
Psychologists know perfectionism is not a healthy way of life. Setting impossible standards for ourselves is a great way to run ourselves into the ground.
I reached my breaking point when I was 19. We tend to think of the “face on the ground” moment of despair, but for me it was “face on the piano keys.” I was a piano major in college, experiencing severe pain in my hands and wrists. I had to stop playing all together, losing my one safe method of self-expression. In my despair, I had to face the fact that it was impossible for me to be perfect.
Fifteen years later, I have slowly rebuilt my ability to play the piano and find joy and fulfillment in the keys once more. But I am still uncovering new layers along my journey of unlearning perfectionism.
I have made leaps and bounds of progress with letting my once-stifled creative voice break through my internal judgments and harsh standards.
But I still fall into the trying-to-be-perfect trap sometimes, in the way that an alcoholic may relapse back into their old coping mechanisms.
I find myself feeling guilty for my many moments of less-than-perfect parenting. (Yes, I yelled at my son last night.)
I berate myself for not doing enough to stop problems like global warming. (Particularly when I am driving my car every day.)
Intellectually, I know that being human means being an imperfect person with plenty of contradictions.
Yet I still struggle with the box of standards I have lived in for so long.
My hard-to-shed rules for being a “good person” are quite simple really. All I have to do is:
1. Be a perfect parent so my kids can become perfect leaders
2. Save the world, including all creatures and people
3. Be happy all the time
Ha! I am laughing at my own ridiculousness. Yet these impossible ideals have persisted through my 15 years of perfectionist recovery.
In the inspiring book, The Art of Possibility, authors Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander distinguish between standards and possibilities.
Standards tend to leave us noticing where we fall short. Standards are often based on comparison, scarcity, and fear of what will happen if we don't measure up.
Possibility is more open. Possibility is not about living up to a certain level, it is about growing into beautiful new ways of being.
To quote Rosamund and Benjamin, “the practice of framing possibility…trains us to be alert to a new danger that threatens modern life- the danger that unseen definitions, assumptions, and frameworks may be covertly chaining us to the downward spiral and shaping the conditions we want to change. But look what magical powers we have! We can make a conscious use of our way with words to define new frameworks for possibility that bring out the part of us that is most contributory, most unencumbered, most open to participation."
In other words, we can still hold our personal ideals as beautiful possibilities, without feeling bad about our shortcomings. Deep in our core, we can know that we are good enough just where we are at, and we can still grow into our dreams for our best selves.\
Photo by Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash