Perfectionism Sucks

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I experienced my first yoga class this past weekend.  And I'm just now realizing that I probably shouldn't have tried to compete with the girl on the mat next to me.  She must have been a) an expert, b) double-jointed, or c) some sort of amphibious non-human creature.  I'd imagine that it's probably some combination of all three because the only body parts that aren't still aching after that 90-minute stretch-fest are my fingers.  On the bright side, there's no better time to blog than now, right?  

Onward and upward!  I have mentioned that I am a recovering perfectionist. What does that even mean? A recovering perfectionist?  Well, it's sort of like being an alcoholic. You must first admit that you have a problem.  Then you can work on fixing it.  I have admitted to myself (and now publicly to my sea of avid readers) that I have a real problem with perfectionism.  I've have been this way my entire life, but I never knew there was an actual term for it or that it was a problem until my freshman year at Meredith College.

You probably remember the post I wrote a while back regarding the woman in the Education Department at Meredith College who told me that I obviously didn't care enough about children to become a teacher since I couldn't decide between a career in education or communication.  Anyway, after numbly finding my way into the counseling center on that terrible afternoon, I found myself continuing to go back to counseling every two weeks from that point on.  It began with working through the traumatic encounter that had just happened with Dr. Parker, and then it progressed into dealing with other things. 

At the very end of our first session, my counselor handed me a bright green brochure with the word: "PERFECTIONISM" plastered on the front.  What's this? I thought to myself. 

Perfectionism is self-destructive thinking. It can include extreme fear of failure, striving to be the best, to reach the ideal, and to never make a mistake, a habit developed from youth that keeps you constantly alert to the imperfections, failings, and weakness in yourself and others, setting unattainable goals for yourself and becoming depressed when you don't reach them, and the underlying motive present in the fear of failure and fear of rejection.

According to LIVESTRONG.COM, there are many irrational beliefs that contribute to perfectionism: 

-the belief that no matter what you attempt it is never good enough to meet your own or others' expectations.
-the belief that whatever you attempt in life must be done perfectly with no mistakes, slip-ups or inconsistencies.
-the belief that unless I am number 1, there is no sense in trying. 
-the belief that winning is the only acceptable goal. 
-the belief that it is what I achieve rather than who I am that is important.
-the belief that I have no value in life unless I am successful.

-the belief that I should never let anyone know what goals I am working on--that way they won't consider me a failure if I don't reach them.

I think the worst part about perfectionism is that you learn to associate your entire self-worth based on how much you have accomplished.  Perfectionists often feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and depression as a result of their failures.  Looking back, I now see how this self-destructive disease contributed to my downward spiral after learning I was pregnant.  Not only had I failed myself, but I had failed, publicly, in front of everyone else around me.  To a perfectionist, that's like that end of the world.

I should probably give you some background about my prior-to-pregnancy life.  I'm the middle sister, therefore I have severe middle-child syndrome.  My parents would probably react the same way (by saying, "good job, honey") whether I had gotten an A+ on a math test or discovered a cure for cancer.  I thrived on their positive-reinforcement.  I was extremely competitive from a young age, and if I wasn't naturally good at something, I had a tendency to just give up. *"If I'm not "number one," what's the point in trying?*  My older sister practiced the piano often and quickly became a young Mozart, making up her own songs, singing beautifully when family and friends would come over.  She was good at everything and she didn't even have to try.  I practiced the piano and quit out of frustration when I couldn't advance past "the buzzing bee."  I wasn't very musically inclined, but I was good at sports.  When my parents threw me in the pool for the first time, I found that I was a natural at swimming.  I remember the sense of incredible accomplishment I felt after joining our summer-league swim team and beating all the other 8-year-olds in sprint free-style.  I loved to win, and I loved the recognition I received as I got better and better. I was finally the best at something.

When I was in high school, my perfectionism got worse.  I had the mindset that I needed to achieve more, to be even more successful, and that failure wasn't an option.  I won the gold medal in our district championship in the 50-yard-freestyle and finished in the top 10 at our state competition.  I made it on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and I had a huge congratulatory poster displayed at school.  During my senior year of high school, I was crowned Homecoming Queen, and I had the highest hopes of earning a full-swimming scholarship in college the next year.  My life was completely perfect.  And then I found out I was pregnant. 

In my tiny little distorted perfectionist world, everything I had ever achieved had just flown out the window.  In my mind, I had failed and that canceled everything else out.  When you're a perfectionist, to fail is to lose everything.  I had lost everything.  

The big turn-around for me was when I finally made it into the counseling center on that fateful day.  I had no idea what perfectionism was, let alone that I had an extreme case of it.  When I realized how much of my self-worth was based on my achievements, it's no wonder I fell into such a deep depression after the pregnancy.  The more I learned about perfectionism, the more I realized just how destructive it had become in my life.  Perfectionism can be a positive thing because it can motivate you to do awesome things and it can keep you focused on setting high goals for yourself, but it can take over your life if you don't keep it under control. 

I'm proud to say that I am now a recovering perfectionist.  I have learned to recognize when my thoughts start to become too irrational, when my outlook starts to become too unrealistic, when I start to become too critical, and when my goals start to become too unattainable.  I have surrounded myself with easy-going, carefree people who have taught me how to loosen up, to let me hair down, and to get out of my comfort zone.  Nobody wants to be around the person who is always critical of herself and others!  

Don't get me wrong--I realize that I'm not going to be able to change who I am as a person. I'm still going to be the same Amy Hutton I was fifteen years ago.  Minus the big bangs and the buck teeth.  I'm still going to dislike the things I'm not naturally good at, I'm still going to be driven by the need to succeed, and I'm still going to be competitive at times.  I am how God made me, and that's not going to change.  But as long as I keep it all in perspective and as long as I'm not competing to do the best "downward-facing-dog" on the yoga mat, I think I'm going to be just fine. 


Elly said...

I'm a fellow perfectionist (not sure I'm recovering!) and lurker at your blog. I wanted to recommend Carol Dweck's book 'Mindset', which helps address some of the achievement/reinforcement issues that underlie a need to be perfect. There are a few articles written online if you google her. The book is rather repetitive, but worth a read, I think.

Amstel said...


Thank you for your book recommendation. I am interested to learn more about perfectionism and those achievement/reinforcement issues. It's nice to know I'm not the only one!

DollarDidIt said...

Dear Miss Perfectionist - you are perfect to us! xoxo

courtneywrites said...

Hi Amy,

I saw a comment you left on Weebles Woblog and that led me here! Thank you for bravely sharing the story of Deanna and your open adoption! My husband and I are in the beginning stages of considering adoption, and until today, the only side I'd really read was that of an adoptive mom who had a very open adoption.

It really opened my eyes to the benefits of open adoption, but then I read something that scared me (the inevitable "You're not my REAL mom" talk) and I wondered if it was really for me. Having read your blog and seeing the way you've accepted the changes in your life with an open heart is inspiring. I pray that if we are able to adopt, that our birthmom is as awesome as you!

Also, I'm Catholic too! :)

Lea Liz said...


I found your blog through IVF INFERTILITY (blog I read) and I clicked over to read your story. I have been trying to catch up for the last hour or so and wow... what a wonderful, inspirational girl you are with an amazing story!!!!!!!!

I am now a follower!!!!

Anonymous said...

omg u hit the nail on the head with this post! haha I just googled up "life sucks when when you're a perfectionist"

VVEERRRRYYY cool blog! To the point that I'd say it is perfect ;D haha

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