There's a lot to be said for being a perfectionist, as it pushes one to strive for excellence and to reach their true potential. I always loved this characteristic in myself, and I attribute whatever success I've had to it. But for a long time, I didn't realise it was a double-edged sword. Then when I was 19, my perfectionism plunged me into a near-fatal depression. What had always been my biggest strength had quickly become my most debilitating weakness. After two miserable years, I wound up in a psych ward, and quickly discovered how many other people had been driven there in part by their perfectionism. Out of the 20 or so group therapy sessions I attended during that particular two week stay, the one on perfectionism drew by far the biggest crowd-the room was packed, and people had to bring in extra chairs from their rooms. I was shocked by this. I had no idea that perfectionism was a problem for so many people. It always seemed to me to be such a good trait to have, so how was it that it had affected so many people so negatively? As the session progressed, there emerged three main ways in which perfectionism seemed to harm people. I hash each of them out below, and talk about how we can stop these tendencies from destroying our lives.
This is exactly what caused my depression. Below is an excerpt from my memoir, where my psychologist Dr Gregor summarised how this happened and explained what I had to do to recover:
"You relentlessly seek excellence, Danny, and you always set extremely challenging goals and then throw yourself into achieving them. Being perfectionistic-ally goal-driven like this is fine in and of itself, but the problem with you is that you measure your self-worth entirely in terms of whether or not you achieve these goals. If you don't achieve a goal that you set out to achieve-like getting a High Distinction average [at university] or getting your novel [that I'd been working on] published by a particular point in time-you hate yourself. You feel worthless and inadequate. You feel like a failure. And you feel this pain so intensely that you become suicidal."
"You're human, Danny, and humans, by our very composition, are not perfect. Humans make mistakes. Humans don't always achieve their goals. You need to accept this, and not be so hard on yourself. You need to accept this, and be able to love yourself regardless. You need to be able to love yourself regardless of how you go in your uni exams and no matter what happens with your novel. Even if you fail every exam for the rest of your degree and your novel never gets published, you should still be able to love yourself. You should be able to find elements of yourself that you love that will be there no matter what. That will let you love yourself no matter what."
He paused for a moment.
"If you can do this, then I think you'll go a long way towards conquering your depression."
Over the next week or so, I battled to find things about myself that I liked. To find reasons that weren't related to "success" or "achievement" or anything of that nature was very hard for me, because they weren't ideas I'd ever considered before. All that had ever mattered to me was whether or not I was achieving my goals. If I was, or was on track to, then I loved myself. If I hadn't, or was not on track to, then I hated myself. The concept of loving myself regardless of whether or not I succeeded was completely foreign to me. But after a long time pondering, I finally had a list written.
I like it that I'm a kind person-someone who always treats other people with respect.
I like it that I'm an honest person who acts with integrity.
I like it that I'm compassionate and that I do volunteer work to try and help other people less fortunate
I like it that I have the determination and the work ethic to pursue my dreams through to completion.
I like the fact that I'm a positive person. I like the fact that even after everything I've been though, I still feel tremendously blessed, still feel immensely fortunate to have everything the Lord has bestowed upon me.
I like the fact that instead of thinking of myself as unlucky for having suffered such a severe depression, I think of myself as lucky for having all the support I'm getting to help me beat it.
I like it that I'm religious-that I have God in my life to guide me and to keep me safe. I like it that I trust Him so deeply that I'm faithful no matter what.
I like it that I'm a fighter. I like it that I can handle everything life throws at me, and that even though I may struggle and fall, I have the strength to get up every time and beat it in the end.
And when I focused on those things, I could actually see that there really was a lot to love about me.
I actually am a good person, I remember thinking. And this really is true, regardless of what my marks are at university or whether or not my novel ever gets published. These are the reasons why I can love myself, and whether I succeed or fail has nothing to do with it.
It was such an empowering revelation, and once I'd made it, I took a huge step forward in conquering my depression. If you too pin your self-worth to how well you achieve your goals, then I'd recommend writing a similar list of your own. Doing so, and having a comparable revelation to the one I had, doesn't mean you stop striving to achieve your goals-rather, it just means that you stop hating yourself when you don't reach them.
Because being perfectionistic leads us to be goal-orientated and pushes us to do our best in everything we do, it can lead us to neglect other things that matter-like our family or our health. For example, if you're always working late, then you'll climb the corporate ladder faster-but if you sacrifice exercising, then your health is going to suffer, and if you're never at home, then so will your marriage. Because of your hard work, you may well speed up the ranks-but is it worth it if your wife leaves? Or if you put on 60 pounds and develop diabetes? One approach that's helped me keep things more in perspective is making a conscious effort to focus more on trying to be happy as opposed to trying to be successful. They both certainly overlap to some degree, but the former is a vastly more well-rounded approach to life, and ever since adopting it, I've been much happier and healthier.
Doing things perfectly--or at least, to the very best of your ability-can be much more time consuming than just doing things well. And because us perfectionists are aware of this, we can often fall into the trap of putting off doing certain tasks altogether, because we can't find the time to do them "perfectly". Alternatively, we can spend so long trying to do something perfectly that we end up spending too long on it or never getting it finished (I've found this to be particularly the case with projects that don't have a time deadline per se, such as writing your first novel or designing the website for your business). In such cases, and in the cases where perfectionism leads us to procrastinate, I think it's important to remind ourselves that a job well done-albeit not a job perfectly done-is still better than a job not done at all.
I started this post by saying that perfectionism has a lot of positive aspects to it, which is very true-so you definitely don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water just because it has the potential to lead to problems down the line. In my opinion, the best thing to do if you're a perfectionist is to just be mindful of the way it may be hurting you, and if you find that it is, take the necessary steps to correct it (for me, this was therapy, and perhaps it is for you too). On the whole, perfectionism is a great quality to have-you just have to make sure that it isn't destroying your life.