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What it's like to be a perfectionist

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

What it's like to be a perfectionist

Stephen H. Provost

What does it mean to be a perfectionist?

It means second-guessing yourself. Continually.

It means procrastinating for fear that you’ll “get it wrong” and (worse) that someone might see you get it wrong. It means criticisms are evidence you’ve already gotten it wrong and that someone has seen it. It means that, because of this, you hate people looking over your shoulder or viewing your work until you’re sure it’s “done” or “ready.” Sometimes, it never is.

Perfectionism makes you snap at people when they interrupt you during a task, because you need to focus to ensure you don’t make a mistake. One that people might see; one that will give them an excuse to ridicule you.

It means being an introvert because you don’t trust others. But you don’t trust yourself, either.

It means thinking before you speak. And thinking. And thinking. Until your thoughts tie themselves up in knots that wrap themselves around your tongue.

It hinders decision-making and can leave you paralyzed.

It means expecting the worst because, at least that way, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s believing you’ll never be able to live up to your parents’ or peers’ or employer’s or partner’s perceived expectations of you, and it means adopting those expectations as your own.

It’s a reaction to believing you’re unlovable. Inherently so. But you can’t control that, so the only remedy is to control what you can by earning people’s respect and substituting it for the love you’ve convinced yourself is unattainable.

Yes, it’s controlling. It’s a desperate attempt to control a world that seems chaotic, hostile and overwhelming, but mostly it’s an attempt to control the one thing you think you can (or should be able to) control: yourself. Because of this, it controls you, and you hate that.

It means seeing everything as your fault because, at least that way, you can control it by “doing better the next time.”

It means you seek approval. But you shun it when it’s offered for things you don’t think you deserve ... and sulk when you don’t receive it after working very hard on something you’re very proud to have accomplished.

It means having a very, very hard time with the reality that life isn’t fair, because it feels like fairness is the only thing standing between you and despair.

It means taking breakups hard and layoffs even harder. At least you can rationalize breakups because they’re based on love, not respect. Love is unpredictable. Respect isn’t supposed to be. If you do a good job, you’re supposed to be rewarded. When it doesn’t work out that way, you feel cast adrift, deprived of the life raft you’ve been clinging to: your hard work and ability.

When you lose a job, you blame yourself for taking that job in the first place, because (of course) you should have known better.

It means Woudla, Coulda, Shoulda and What If are couch surfing on your medial temporal lobe. Regret and foreboding team up in an unending tag-team match against your reason and your serenity.

You feel the need to look in the rear-view mirror, peer under the hood and keep your eyes on the road, all at the same time. You have to be on top of everything. Otherwise, the unthinkable will happen. You’ll fail. And people will see it. And they’ll never let you live it down.

It means sleepless nights lost to anxiety and fitful sleep haunted by nightmares.

It means high blood pressure and low self-esteem.

It means you’re constantly asking yourself, “What have you done for me lately?”

It means playing the diplomat and getting slammed from both sides.

It means avoiding conflict and trying to please everyone.

It means thinking you’re never good enough.

It means loving spellcheck for saving your ass and hating it for making you look the fool.

It means always having to say you’re sorry: repeatedly apologizing for things that are your fault, and for things that aren’t.

Failure is the enemy. When you fail, you beat yourself up for it publicly in the hope that self-castigation will keep your critics at bay. But it doesn’t. They revile and ridicule you anyway, so you get beaten up twice over.

It’s being governed by worry and a continual readiness to shift into fight-or-flight mode ... if you don’t live there already. It’s a gateway to defensiveness, cynicism and, if you’re not careful, superstition and paranoia. But because you are careful to a fault you’re less likely to get there. At least that’s something.

It means you seldom stop to smell the roses, and you miss out on a lot of life’s beauty. That’s a mistake, too, and you beat yourself up over that. Another regret.

That’s what it means to be a perfectionist. At least part of it. Of course, this list isn't perfect ...