How can being a perfectionist be bad for you? I’ve questioned this thought before numerous times. In the last five months I’ve come a long way from my former self. Although there’s no outwardly noticeable change to those who know me there is a distinguishable inner peace that only I recognize. My actions in the five months of 2017 speak to my evolution. It wasn’t one thing or anything really specific that made me achieve my own form of personalized Zen. If I had to sum it up the culmination of my total efforts result in one fundamental change in my thinking: perfection is unobtainable and an ultimate waste of my energy.
Does this mean that I’m now a potato chip-chewing couch potato? (I assure I have nothing against tubers.) No. Actually it’s the opposite. As I have learned and continue to learn (and will forever be learning) striving for perfection and many times not striving at all out of fear of not achieving said perfection, has been one of the biggest if not the sole culprit in, what I can only refer to as, my lack of accomplishment in life. With the release of the need to be perfect I have found myself become happier, more confident, more focused, and driven like I have never been before.
According to Paula Durlofsky, PhD and regular psychcentral.com contributor, procrastination can be a common side effect of perfectionism. “Putting tasks off is the perfectionist’s way of protecting him- or herself from the underlying fear that the task will not be completed perfectly” says Durlofsky and I couldn’t identify with this statement more up until a few months ago. In fact my hiatus from writing was a direct result of a decade of procrastination out of fear of imperfect prose.
I have blamed the underlying symptoms of my perfectionism for years as the cause for my “lack of motivation” and “underachievement.” The frustration and anger I exhibited as a child, which later turned to indifference (my coping mechanism was acting cool even in situations that made me uncomfortable leading many times to doing or dealing with things when I should have spoken up for myself.) It has long been a joke among my parents and sister that as a child I spent up to 10-15 minutes adjusting and readjusting my socks on my feet because they didn’t “feel right” when placed inside my shoes. This would cause us to be late sometimes and would leave me crying and stressed unlike any five year old should ever be.
As I grew older and my tantrums and crying fits transformed to indifference as I entered into adolescence a different emotional reaction to my need for perfection took hold, depression. Although many walls and doors with fist-shaped holes in them would beg to differ with this change as I moved from adolescence into adulthood my anger subsided and depression reigned supreme. Where some perfectionist take this call to action to, in fact, become “overachievers” I went the opposite route and avoided the possibility of failure at every turn. As a teen I had the guidance and most often the fear of disappointing, followed by consequences, from my parents to keep me honest. When I moved into college my opted persona of underachiever took hold and I barely graduated in four years with a meager 2.6 GPA. This is also when I began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to mask the anger and depression I had from ignoring my “potential.” (Camouflaging that activity as college life.) Although, I knew that the alternative of trying hard, only to realize I was in fact unworthy, was not a possibility and opted for the easier route of indifferent drug addict.
I continued to live an “easy-going” life because, well, it was easier but then I finally accomplished something real in my life. I fell in love and I got married. You can never be prepared for what life as a spouse really means. Sure, people like to give you advice and anecdotes from their own experiences but nothing can put you in the mindset of a person in the middle of such a committed relationship. As a perfectionist I had many acquaintances growing up and in young adulthood but having a real relationship with another human being requires vulnerability. The times that I tried that only resulted in my getting hurt and agreeing that, like everything else, it was best to keep my distance to evade failure.
I have a connection with my parents and sister because of their proximity and history with me but have practically no relationship with any other relative (I was close to my grandmother on my dad’s side but she has been gone now for 17 years.) I have a small handful of close friends with whom I do have deep relationships (although some could be more meaningful to me then the other person might actually feel.) When you enter the commitment of marriage you take relationships to a whole other level.
The “easy-going” life of the underachiever betrayed me. I realized that the responsibilities I shared in a committed relationship weigh heavier than my own and found the need to push myself out of those comfort zones to actually accomplish a life worthy of my wife. But the perfectionist in me has been battling me to regain the easy route in contention with the possibility of failure.
As a perfectionist I found myself needing reassurance and praise which led me very early on to be a people pleaser and someone who “put on a show” to be who I needed to be in any given situation. In truth, confrontation cannot be described as perfect. It’s messy and most people do there best to avoid it but I have spent my life going above and beyond to steer clear of the imperfection of upsetting others and having them feel let down or disappointed in me. This results in a lack of confidence that I know is still evident especially in these words but I’m trying.
As a result of this particular symptom of my perfectionism I learned to overcompensate by being brutally honest with the person closest to me, my wife. Convinced being completely transparent and open about everything was the solution to living a successful marriage I began forcing every bit of my perfection-seeking persona onto my wife which in turn only alienated her and left her feeling as if we were opponents instead of teammates. It also fed both of our codependent personalities (both of us are people pleasers) to cause insecurity between us that neither of us could overcome.
This inherent habit of people pleasing and acting according to how others expected me to and what I’ve always referred to as borderline obsessive compulsiveness, which was merely my need for perfection, left me lacking my own identity. I feel often that I don’t truly know myself and that I adopt a persona that I think suites me or is what others expect of me (again that need to please.) This, I feel, leaves me lacking that capability to be vulnerable in fear that I will be “discovered.”
But, discovered as what? Imperfect? Is that so bad?
In the last five months I’ve quit smoking cannabis, an eighteen-year habit. I’ve also stopped drinking and although I’ve only been (completely) sober 2 two months I am already happier to live life unencumbered and without the excuse of crutches. I spent so many years telling myself I was enjoying life by allowing myself to take part in the “finer things.” I have recently learned that, although I’m not an addict in the “traditional” sense of the word, I was using drugs and alcohol to allow myself to mask my anger, depression and the anxiety of not living up to my potential (all brought on by my need for perfection.)
Although, my perfection Jones has kept me physically active and eating healthy (most of the time) over the last ten years I continue to treat my body with kindness and respect even more now that I’ve removed the things that nursed my underachieving self. Although, I spent many years counting calories and removing everything that could be considered as “bad” from my diet, I now have relaxed and allowed myself to stay healthy but also happy. It is necessary for professional athletes but I am not one and until I start training for American Ninja Warrior or the Cross Fit Games it doesn’t need to be such an imperative part of my life.
I’ve also found meditation to be extremely helpful to calm my mind when fears and anxiety resurface and try pushing me back to my comfort zone. I remember that perfection is not obtainable especially when it comes to spirituality (mhm, this is my opinion.) There is no right or wrong when it comes to meditation in my mind. You just sit and breathe (as my good buddy Tyson told.) The pursuit of perfection in such an act goes against exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.
There are other better-known Apps out there to help you get started and stick with meditation but the one I use is called, Insight Timer. It’s totally free, has tons of guided meditations to choose from, a community of other mediators and tracks your activity and rewards you with stars as you reach milestones (although that also isn’t the point of meditation, it’s nice to see all the gold stars next to my name.) Feel free to friend me (Peter Gordon Lepere in Kihei.)
I’ve recently embarked on a quest to become a writer and entrepreneur which is totally foreign to me and where I would have given up quickly because the amount of work to achieve perfection in either field is staggering, I’m now taking tiny little steps each day towards my larger goals and have removed my need to be perfect at it all. This is a principal point that I have known for years but could not master (and still haven’t) because perfection is unobtainable. Some days are better than others. Some days I knock it out of the park. Other days, I can’t even get hit by a pitch. When I’m reminded of this fact I allow myself to have a momentary failure and pick myself up again. The time in which I recover from setbacks has greatly decreased from days, weeks, and even months to hours and most often now, minutes.
But with this I’ve also had to learn patience, which is the underachieving perfectionists’ mortal enemy. We want it, we want it flawless, and we want it now! Patience has held me back just as much as being perfect. In my opinion, the over achieving perfectionist has all the patience in the world but the underachiever has zero further supporting his/her resolution to not try in the first place.
This is my biggest barrier to overcome. I can agree with myself to allow the shortcomings but in the midst of baby steps towards an overall goal the necessity of true grit eludes me more often than not. To be truly tolerant requires mastery and in a sense, perfection of one’s nerve. But wait…contradiction? Yes, because what are imperfections if not the dueling ideas of thought? As I proceed daily to build my brand and audience, find my voice, and learn the ins and outs of all that is an online entrepreneurship, knowing that my daily accomplishments bring my slightly closer feeds my drive to continue day after day. If I can encourage, help, or advise one person I believe what I’m doing is worth it. If I can cause a smile, thought, or discussion with one person I’m showing progress.
What is life if not progress? To progress in life we need to have purpose otherwise we are just collecting dust until that day. That day that comes early or late comes for us all. Some of us can prepare and some of us can’t but it comes nonetheless.
As I lived my underachieving lifestyle supposedly content with “having a good time” I neglected to realize that having a purpose to exist and possibly leave a legacy could provide the same type of satisfaction that the drugs and alcohol did. Try it. If you think I’m wrong don’t just shrug me off but give it a shot and see. What could life be like when you redirect your energy from “getting fucked-up” to real purpose. Yours will be different than mine and frankly I haven’t fully realized my own. That’s okay. I waited for over a decade to have a sudden realization of what I should do with my life instead of just trying something, anything. That time is gone but I am not and my time is devoted now.
My new mantras are, “love the struggle” and “always do.” Moving forward is always better than staying still and when you come up against the obstacles, and you will, learn to love the fight because you always come out knowing more than we did going in and those failures really stand for progress. You will always be progressing. There is never a moment when you will say, “Well I’ve done it. I’ve reached perfection and I can stop doing everything now.” No. Life around you is constantly progressing and as a part of the overall universe it is necessary for you to consistently evolve too.