the perils of perfectionism
When I was younger, I used to think that being a perfectionist was a good thing. It meant that I knew the importance of working really hard and I could sacrifice the fun stuff for a higher purpose. Namely, getting good grades. Failure wasn’t an option. My ruthless study ethic meant I duxed high school, and did well enough in my undergraduate degree to secure a place in a post-graduate medical program.
Two years into my dream degree, I was utterly burnt out. Throw in increasing discontent, health difficulties, my parents’ divorce, and by my mid-twenties, I was done with chasing after perfection. It didn’t exist. Whatever image I had of what my life “should” look like, had imploded. In a desperate attempt to figure out what I really wanted, I stopped my medical studies – much to the relief of my doctor friends, long-time friends, and the horror of mostly everyone else – and moved to a faraway place, to get my bearings.
Suffice to say, things were not going to plan. I had used my perfectionism as armour, but life had chipped away at it. And it got messy. Beneath all of my well-structured timetables and goal-setting was someone who didn’t know how to NOT achieve. You mean, I could just be me? What a concept!
Dr Sarah Egan from Curtin University explains that perfectionism stems from a genetic predisposition but mostly environmental learning, particularly from parents who raise their kids to do well in school. I happen to be a poster child for Dr Egan’s description. I’m a first-generation migrant from Singapore, and I was raised with the very, very clear message that ‘You’ve got so many more opportunities in Australia, so don’t waste them. Work hard.’ Or perish – that was the subtext. As an impressionable child, gaining parental displeasure was a fate worse than…well, studying a lot.
What does perfectionism mean to you? For some of us, it means setting high standards, and not stopping until they’re met. For others, it means having bouts of crippling self-doubt because you just never feel good enough. As a child, perfectionism meant coming first in my exams, getting 100%, and feeling absolutely terrible about myself if I didn’t get the marks that I wanted. As an adult, perfectionism is inexplicably wired with procrastination. The more anxious I am about producing a perfect painting or article, the longer I put it off.
This New York Times article explains that researchers have placed perfectionists into three categories:
1) Self-oriented: People who strive to live up to their high standards.
2) Outwardly-oriented: People who expect perfectionism in those around them, wreaking havoc on their relationships.
3) Impossible, external ideals: People who work very hard to live up to an ideal they believe others expect of them.
To a certain extent, perfectionism does bring about great results in studies and work. If I’m going in for an operation, I want a surgeon who strives to get things right. Perfectionism becomes a problem when it spreads to other aspects of life such as hobbies, appearance, or relationships. The dark side of perfectionism can be seen in men and women with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and suicidal thinking.
Women like me are at risk for postnatal depression. If there are any lifeforms who don’t run on a schedule, it’s babies. Catherine Eliot from Curtin University ran a study with the aim of identifying the cognitive factors that make some women more vulnerable to postnatal depression than others. The study predicted that perfectionistic women that have a tendency to ruminate but don’t make plans to solve issues are more likely to develop postnatal depression compared to those who don’t ruminate.
Being an aunt and a friend to many mothers, I’ve sampled a tiny bit of the sheer chaos that babies bring. I’d imagine that goal-setting and timetabling doesn’t apply to newborns and infants the way they apply to work and study. There’s so much room for guilt and frustration if a new mother expects perfection in her parenting style. Eliot describes that postnatal depression is already undiagnosed in Australia.
‘Women who are high on perfectionism are less likely to report depression because they want to be seen to be doing everything perfect.’
Studies like Eliot’s will help to offer preventative care for postnatal depression by developing a questionnaire that identifies women with high perfectionism and rumination.
Real life is messy in its imperfection, and that’s okay. Listening to Brene Brown’s TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability was like an epiphany for me. You mean it’s okay to be imperfect? To actually stop trying so hard? After her talk went viral, for a time, being vulnerable was all the rage!
As a recovering perfectionist, learning to relax and stop putting pressure on myself is often difficult. I’ve learnt to deliberately not give into my tendency to obsess for hours over a work project, and I’ve found out that I don’t need to put in so much time to get the same results. Over time, it is getting easier to have more realistic expectations of myself. Life is a lot brighter when I’m not measuring myself up to an impossible standard. It’ll take time before my perfectionist default is reset to something more manageable, but you know what they say: practice makes perfect.