My Battle with Perfectionism

Carmen BryceBlog posts

My jealousy of Grainne: A Battle with Perfectionism

By Michelle O’Connor, MyMind Limerick centre manager 

“When we feel jealous, we tell ourselves a story. We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience, we know just what details to include, to dig that knife in. Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists” –  Parul Sehgal 2013

Grainne is a career woman who is well respected and known in her field. She is perceived to be irreplaceable in her job and does it with ease, positivity and everyone likes her. Grainne is in a long term solid, loving relationship and recently got approved for her mortgage thanks to her long term saving for the past 5 years. Grainne has a group of great friends with whom she has never had an argument with and who she meets every weekend for shopping and coffee dates. Grainne is my name for the epitome of ‘Perfectionism’. She is well rounded and is doing it all, perfectly. Whatever modern life is supposed to be about, she understands it, performs it and succeeds at it. I resent and envy Grainne.

I often said growing up that the only way I could get attention in my house was to be exceptionally good as my sister was exceptionally bold. I knew it wasn’t in me to be as bold and rebellious as her so on reflection think I must have made a subconscious decision to be perfect to gain attention that way. However as years ticked on and there was no longer a need for me to do this, I still found myself needing to be perfect and the best.

The day I read an article explaining the mental health issue around ‘Perfectionism’ by Melissa Dahl was a day of relief. To have a name for something that you have experienced for many years is like someone whispering that other people feel this too, this does exist and it is something that can cripple your mental health.

I remember sitting in 6th class and receiving my summer test results and getting an ‘average’ 55% and sinking into my seat. It wasn’t good enough for me and while others would be exhilarated with this grade that my conscious mind could conceptualise as ‘good’, my subconscious mind saw this as inadequate. Looking back as an adult, I can see that getting my mother to ring my teacher and tell her I was very worried what she thought of that me since getting that grade is a strong signal of the lifelong need to be and perceived as ‘perfect’. Still to this day, I criticise myself for weeks over a mistake, my subconscious questioning my conscious on how I allowed that to happen. Grainne would never let that happen.

I envied classmates who sailed through exams and had what I viewed had a picture perfect family. Of course, in hindsight I see that no one has it ‘perfect’ but in my adult mind I still find myself envying job positions, experiences and achievements of colleagues and friends. Sehgal (2013) suggests that jealousy reveals us to ourselves and no other emotion has this ability. No other emotion has taught me more about myself than jealousy, highlighted my inner competitive ambition that is spiteful and horrid and reinforced my inner need to be perfect, like Grainne.

“Perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect,” Greenspon, S,T

As a relatively self-aware person I thought the more aware and informed I became on the topic, the more I could distance myself from this element of myself however tackling the critical pressure and thought patterns that comes with perfectionist tendencies is a difficult task. I, at times, thought the only way to resolve the thoughts and pressure was to become perfect in each aspect of my life, this seemed like the most successful route. I soon realised this is what a typical perfectionist would say ‘my problems will disappear once I stop making mistakes and being ‘just’ adequate’. This is when you realise that you are not just ambitious or a high achiever, but could be a perfectionist.

People can often perceive and suggest perfectionism to be a compliment and although people who experience the need for perfectionism are hardworking, high achievers there is a high price that comes with it. Perfectionism is strongly linked with anxiety and when a perfectionist makes a mistake or encounters a perceived failure, the anxiety and depression that accompanies that has been cited as a ‘loaded gun’. When a perfectionist does not achieve, it can create a severe sense of anxiety and depression making it an important mental health issue to discuss. It has been found in numerous studies (Frost et al 2001) that people who are perfectionists experience multiple different forms of anxiety such as social anxiety and PTSD.

One of the most confusing elements of perfectionism is the accompanying feeling of being an ‘imposter’. Although many perfectionists are extremely talented and successful, a key trait of perfectionists is feeling like you are pretending to be perfect. The success experienced by the person is because of luck or being an imposter and that someday, someone will find out I am a fake. A few weeks before graduating from my undergraduate degree, I received a letter informing me I was receiving an award for ‘overall excellence’ during the degree. Sitting in the graduation ceremony I was still waiting for them to call someone else’s name as it must have been a mistake, it could not have been me and if it was me, I thought it was pure luck.

Imposter syndrome can be detected when a high achiever chronically questions their abilities and success perceiving it to be luck or a mistake and someday they will be discovered as an intellectual fraud. This can further consume and deplete a perfectionist’s mental health as when great success is achieved, it is questioned suspiciously and not enjoyed. Research has suggested this is an issue faced mostly by students who have to juggle college work, career advancements, friends, family, image and social media portrayal and want to do it all ‘perfectly’.

Sergal (2013) conceptualises this perfectly stating, “We live in jealous times, I mean we are all good citizens of social media, where the currency is envy”. Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, each a forum for a person to see more and more about Grainne and her perfect life.  It was an important step for me to address, name and identify that I experienced this and then identify the resources that I can draw upon to increase my personal resilience.

Going forward there are many important steps that I know were important for me in tackling this and although I don’t have all the answers,  true to form I am going to try very hard to challenge my internal thought processes and self-criticism. Engaging in physical activity has proven to be very beneficial in improving my overall mental health.  Talking to friends and family helps the situation as sometimes my partner, close friend or mother can help rationalise a situation that alone you perceive as disastrous due to a ‘mistake’ you made.

There are days where I still envy Grainne and her perfectly styled hair and white shirt that she never manages to stain when she goes out for dinner and unnecessarily follow her on all social media to develop further my imaginary novel about her beautiful and perfect life. But remembering that I am creating a novel of fiction, a story being created that no one reads or believes but me and this self-awareness helps. Each day I endeavour to learn to accept myself, perfectly or imperfectly. I don’t have all the answers but sometimes hearing the story, my story and not all the answers is just what’s needed, to challenge ourselves, to connect with each other, to create change. After all, as Angluad once beautifully noted, “a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”.