Lessons on Success from a Recovering Perfectionist

The summer I turned 19, I started going to therapy. I had just completed my first year of university. I moved out of my dorm and back home where I was welcomed by a series of panic attacks. 

The first attack hit me the hardest. I remember not even feeling sad or upset before it happened. It seemed to just came out of nowhere. My vision blurred, I couldn’t think and I began crying, gasping for breath, my chest on fire. I remember falling to the floor, and crawling into my closet for shelter. From the floor, I called my best friend. I don’t remember what I said, but she showed up within minutes and we drove around and sat in her car in a Tim Hortons parking lot until I felt better. 

Aside from the attacks, it got to the point that I was either so upset or so emotionally numb, that I couldn’t eat. It was then that I made an appointment to see my family doctor. 

After some tests, my doctor diagnosed me with “moderate anxiety” and “mild depression.” She thought I would benefit from medication, but I was already on so many different drugs for my arthritis she wanted to start me out with therapy. So I got a prescription to visit a psychologist. 

During one of my first sessions, my therapist said something about me being “a perfectionist” but I brushed it off. There was no way I could be a perfectionist. I was nowhere close to being as good as a perfectionist would be. A perfectionist would know how to properly style her hair, would be meticulous about her weight and would have gotten all A’s at school (I had gotten a B that semester — in psychology, ironically). I told my therapist I was “too lazy” to be called “Type A.” That’s when she laughed. “The funny thing though, Faith,” she said, “Is that you’re even a perfectionist about being a perfectionist.” 

In the last year, what’s become increasingly apparent to me is that my perfectionism is more of a hindrance than it is a help. After I first acknowledged that I indeed was a perfectionist (which took some time), I told myself it was a good thing because it motivated me to be better. But that statement in itself illuminates the real danger of having a perfectionist belief system. 

When you’re a perfectionist, you believe that there is something inherently wrong or missing from who you are as a person. You believe that you (and life) will only be okay, when you become better. 

I was constantly making lists of things I needed to do to be better. I needed to lose “x” amount of weight, read “x” amount of books, get another publication, finish another project — that’s when I’d be good enough.

And since I tied my worth to my productivity and accomplishments, I was meticulous about managing my free time. Each day, when I got home from work, I’d write articles, read "important" books, workout, take classes, volunteer, etc. I was obsessive about being productive and using my time effectively. 

What I’ve come to realize though is that productivity does not equal effectiveness. My definition of success, i.e. completing everything on my perfectionist bucket list, was a lose-lose situation. When I did accomplish something on the list, something else was added — the list was never-ending so in turn I was never good enough. 

The other losing aspect of my definition, was that striving towards it was wearing me down. My perfectionism was all consuming. I was no longer doing things because I wanted to, I was doing them because I felt I had to. I wasn’t living my life for me. I was a human-doing, not a human-being.

There is a big difference between having a busy life and a full life. Human doings equate productivity with effectiveness, but Alfred A. Montapert said it best when he said, “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” 

Christine Hassler outlines that a full life is “being fulfilled from the inside out.” When I was a perfectionist, I was basing my worth off my external accomplishments. Our worth, however, is not based on anything outside of ourselves. We are inherently worthy. 

By acknowledging our own worth, we lessen the hold perfectionism has on us. We give ourselves the opportunity to base our actions off the desires of our heart instead of our feelings of “less than.”

To live with more intention, it’s important to ask yourself if what you're doing and how you’re living is serving you. To start living with more intention right now, start by taking a breath. Slowing down is the best defence against "autopilot living." Being present is a scary place for perfectionists because they often want to have completed tomorrow, yesterday. Perfectionists are so focused on how much better they want to be, they miss how great they already are. Don’t miss how great you already are. To feel good, see good. Focus on the positive. 

So take a moment, slow down, and bask in the awesome that is you. I promise it will feel better than crossing something else off your to-do list.