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Perfectionism, a learned malady
how much have I not done, because I couldn't do it perfectly?
Oh what a gift to be a perfectionist? What a fashionable condition to have: perfection. I can’t help it, I was born this way - the humble braggers imply, their vanity simmering over under their breath. As a society, we cling to deterministic beliefs: what’s in our DNA, so much of who we are, we attribute it to the coding within our cells. Nevermind the scientists telling us it doesn’t work that way. We are escaping from freedom, escaping from responsibility, escaping from the possibility of change.
When someone suggested the cause of many of my problems was perfectionism, I was in stunned disbelief. Certainly striving for perfection could have some downsides, but was it really a malady? Could it really be related to my habit of frequently changing direction with troubling consequences? Surely, if I was a perfectionist, I wouldn’t be changing direction at all…right?
But when this person went on, they described my problem as facing an unceasing set of self-imposed unrealistic expectations - perfection - and changing direction whenever these are inevitably not met. This framed perfection not a condition one is born with, leading them to be skilled in their craft and produce great works, but rather a debilitating and learned condition.
Looking back, I can see how this rings true in many of my experiences. It’s an added complexity, perhaps related to the form of mild bipolar disorder that I was likely born with, or perhaps not. In any case, I thought perfectionism worth writing about because when understood as a learned and debilitating habit, rather than a pre-determined condition with more upside than down, a path to unlearning it and pursuing growth emerges.
I don’t know where, when or how my perfectionism started, but I know from an early age I was fond of simplicity and order - perhaps as a response to the traumatic experience of frequently quarreling parents who ultimately parted ways when I was seven years old, an experience entirely out of my control that I did not know how to cope with (trauma). But I’m not a psychologist and the cause is not that important, because whatever it was, however I learned this behavior is not the key, or even related to unlearning it.
In school, I was one of the students who could understand concepts and pass exams, but rarely did my homework nor had the motivation to really engage with what I was learning. Perhaps this was because I was depressed or perhaps because it was truly dull and boring, irrelevant to my interests, but did perfectionism also play a role? If I couldn’t get 100% on every exam, if I couldn’t master every concept and idea as soon as it was introduced to me, why bother? That’s perfectionism talking. That’s unrealistically high expectations that result in actually producing work far below my capability, if I produce anything at all - nothing resembling perfection (hence why I would have denied being a perfectionist).
The habit produced strange behaviors; I remember when I first became interested in smartphones (years before the iPhone), I rarely kept a phone for more than a few months, always finding something wrong with the one I had and buying one I thought would be better. I went through so many phones searching for the perfect one. In the end, it was a waste of time and money looking for something that didn’t exist - nothing to be proud of. I now carry a sense of pride in still using my dinged and cracked iPhone 8 Plus that I purchased in 2018, it works great! But this change was born more out of a change in the way I valued money than understanding the fallacy that produced the behavior.
More severe manifestations of perfectionism have come in my work, switching from job to job because whatever job I had was in one way or another not perfect and I believed that a perfect job existed, I just had to find it. On one hand, this led me to ever better jobs - but I was never satisfied and worse I could never meet the (perfect) expectations I held for the work I was tasked with doing at any given job. Ultimately, this meant that when I landed my dream job, I left (three times).
When I was a kid, I played a ton of video games (rather than doing my homework). I loved being in the virtual reality where things were so much more perfect and easier than in real life. I was consumed with my virtual persona and satisfied that in many ways it was perfect (albeit not real). Looking back, I think that this addiction could have contributed to my development of perfectionist behaviors, in addition to childhood trauma. But as with the incessant phone buying, I stopped playing video games not because I saw them contributing to unrealistic expectations, but because my understanding of time and money had changed.
The cost is what makes perfectionism a malady. Not just the money I wasted, but the way changing jobs and giving up on things damaged my personal and professional relationships (as well as career prospects). In an earlier blog post, I attributed this behavior to episodes of depression, where I lacked motivation to do anything, and while depression may have contributed to it, there was also a component of wanting perfection and being prevented from sometimes even starting on something until I believed I could do it perfectly.
Both at work and at university, I recall dozens, perhaps hundreds of times where I couldn’t bring myself to even start on a task because the pain of expecting myself to do it perfectly was unbearable. At the time, I didn’t think of my expectations as perfection, rather I saw perfection as the only option. I couldn’t pursue less than perfection because I couldn’t comprehend less than perfection. I held myself back from learning and growing (academically and professionally) because I was afraid of failure, and that’s all I saw: perfection and failure, the two extremes.
I don’t know the solution to perfectionism, but awareness is a big first step. Awareness of the unrealistic expectations and how holding them causes problems and prevents me from doing so many things. Even writing this blog post. I have been wanting to write it since I first became aware of the relationship between perfectionism and my past challenges, two months ago, but have spent that time not writing it because I don’t know how to do so perfectly - and in my dysfunctional thinking, to not do it perfectly is to fail, therefore writing this post is an inevitable failure.
But I wrote this post anyway, so maybe that’s a bit of progress? Searching for that middle ground, between failure and perfection - that’s where life, learning and growth happens.
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