Looking back over the first 38 years of my life it is clear now that the way I approached life, and the way I thought about and treated myself were classic symptoms of the perfectionist mindset. Of course I never labelled myself as one, because I didn’t think I had actually achieved anything worthwhile, let alone got anywhere near to being perfect. I wasn’t a high achiever; I wasn’t skinny and fashionable; I wasn’t uptight and detailed or any of the other supposed characteristics of a perfectionist. And I definitely wasn’t obsessively clean or well organised. Also, I could sense in a rational way that perfection was not only impossible, but would be pretty boring for everyone involved, but I didn’t know that in my bones, so my subconscious ignored this possibility.
My perfectionist mindset knew I wasn’t perfect but thought I should and could be. The only reason I wasn’t perfect yet, was down to my failings. If I just worked harder and smarter, I’d get there.
As a result I spent my life constantly striving to prove myself, setting myself high standards, building up huge expectations of myself, of others and of experiences and then inevitably failing to reach them. My mind was consumed with thoughts of how I would be better, slimmer, more productive, more in control, nicer, more successful, sometime really soon, if only I made myself do this, that or the other. If only I was more focused, self-disciplined and confident I’d get things done and finally be accepted, approved of and therefore happy. [Note: I wasn’t really aware that this was all going on until I woke up to the damage perfectionism was doing to me, and realised that all my goals and dreams were merely ways I thought I could prove to the world that I belonged. At the time I actually believed I was OK in my own skin, and had a decent self-esteem. How our minds fool us.]
The most ironic thing that perfectionism does to you is make you turn on yourself. Instead of being your biggest champion, supporting, boosting and helping you reach the perfection you aspire to, it beats you up and pulls you apart so you are left in a broken heap on the floor unable to do anything but survive the day, minute by painful minute.
So when I didn’t achieve what I thought I should be able to, my inner critic beat me up so much that at times I slipped into depression. My optimism, hope and determination to be a better person, especially a better mother, alway picked me back up off the floor sometime later and I set off again pushing the big rock up the hill, striving to really DO IT this time. Inevitably each time I failed, and a small part of the faith I had in myself evaporated. That was the hardest part – losing the belief that I could do it. Because then there was no hope.
Secretly though, I was proud of this self motivating, striving side of me. Who else was going to kick me up the backside and make me become a better person? How else would I keep going to achieve what I wanted in my life? If I didn’t set myself high standards and expectations I might as well give up – because no one else could or would do it for me. I interpreted this as a healthy intrinsic motivation that led me forward, without realising that this perfectionist thinking – relying on external rewards, praise and validation for your self worth – is the fast track to unhappiness, depression, inauthenticity and unfulfilment. Yeah – I had those four companions in bucket loads, but I thought my perfectionism would get me away from them if I pushed myself hard enough. I didn’t realise that my perfectionist thinking was actually the cause of them, and that pushing harder was the worst possible solution.
When I became a mum 15 years ago, my perfectionist gremlins really took hold. But at the same time, I was also growing as a person and struggled to assert myself. So an epic battle occurred in my head around who I was and who I should be. I trained as a life coach when my second child was a baby and have continued to study psychology and the mind ever since, learning each day how to be happier. However my approach to happiness over the last 15 years has two distinct stages.
For the first 8 years I carried on in my perfectionist ways and was my own worst enemy. I pushed and strived to be the person I thought I should be, and beat myself up constantly for not being a better, organised, fulfilled, successful and happy mum.
Then, one day when I was having an argument with my 8 year old son, I followed him obsessively into his bedroom. He was being the grown up, wanting some space to calm down, while I was overwhelmed with anger and frustration and couldn’t let it lie. So he shouted at me, to make me listen: ‘Mum – you just expect me to be perfect all the time! I can’t be perfect!” It was like he had thrown a bucket of cold water over me. I woke up. This explained why he had started to say he hated himself and wanted to die. This explained why he wouldn’t try new things in case he failed. This was why he said he was rubbish at everything, and the family would be better off without him.
The unrealistically high expectations that I put upon our family weren’t just about expecting myself to be perfect but also about my kids. It’s a huge burden to put on children. My son had never heard me verbally beating myself up, he had never heard me say that I was a failure, or that I was a rubbish mum. I saved that up for my poor husband, who, I have to say, dealt with it amazingly well most of the time. My son had learnt this way of thinking from how I treated him. He had learnt it from what I expected from him, how much I corrected him, when I had to point out how he could have done something differently, and how I constantly expected emotions and behaviours to be controlled and overcome (even though I couldn’t do that myself).
It’s been over 7 years since I decided to stop being a perfectionist, and I now see my life before and after that point. Kind of like: pre-imperfection and post perfection (though obviously I have never actually been perfect…*sigh*).
I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery ever since. It’s not been easy, by any stretch, but it’s easier and much more rewarding than being stuck as a perfectionist. I’m happy to say that my son is now a confident, self-assured, grounded, kind and opinionated 15 year old. I’m sure his strengths and personality were heading that way anyway, but I’m incredibly proud that I’ve managed to step out of his way in the last 7 years to allow him to flourish.
As a recovering perfectionist I still have many perfectionist thoughts and habits, but I’m so much more aware of them and don’t have to adhere to them anymore. In the last couple of years I’ve let go of many of the belief systems that scaffolded my perfectionist coping strategies in place. Plus I’m on the way to earning a PhD in letting go. Letting go of who I think I ‘should’ be. Letting go of fear-based goals and expectations. Letting go of what other people think of me. Letting go of painful emotions around my self-worth. Letting go of believing that negative emotions are bad. Letting go of limiting beliefs. The list goes on, and will continue to go on for the rest of my life. Happiness is a journey not a destination. Actually, happiness is a state of being and we can choose it at any time.
Today I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m the most fulfilled I’ve ever been. I feel the most supported I’ve ever felt. I feel the most optimistic I’ve ever felt (and perfectionists are the eternal optimists!). I’m the most at peace I’ve ever felt. And it’s all because I decided to stop being a perfectionist and be kind to myself instead. For the sake of my children. Because at the time I didn’t know in how many ways it would help me too.
Do you need to start being more kind to yourself? Do you need to accept the person you are instead of trying to be some ‘perfect’ flawless, superhuman? What if you were able to choose happiness and peace without having to Do or Prove anything to anyone – including yourself?
The hardest part is the letting go. But it all starts with a choice. A choice to be kinder to yourself from this day on. A choice to offer kindness, peace and love to your broken heart.
How long will you wait to make that choice?