The Curse of Perfectionism

How do we know what we know? We’re taught and told things. We observe people and events and objects around us. Some things are instinctual. But we also learn a great deal from personal experience. Sometimes what we learn is positive: I love sushi after all! And sometimes it isn’t: I am never going to drink that much again! The positive and negative are equal components: it’s all feedback to your brain so you know what behaviors you want, or don’t want, to repeat. It also gives you the impetus to change your behavior as necessary.

Unless you’re a perfectionist. Perfectionism takes “that decision didn’t work out so well; I’ll adjust my behavior and/or approach accordingly in the future” and transforms it into “I fucked up so bad, like I always do; I should have known; I’m so stupid.” It leaves you feeling like you never do anything right, like you’re worthless and proving it with every decision, every mistake, every action. You don’t accept what’s happened as just an experience; you don’t forgive yourself; you internalize what’s happened and blame yourself and take every opportunity to use it against yourself.

This has been my life for as long as I can remember. From my youngest memories, I see a little girl who’s made what she perceives is a mistake—said something that hurt a friend, inadvertently (or not) disobeyed her parents, answered a question on an exam incorrectly, spoke out in class only to be rebuffed—beating herself up, sometimes literally. I used to rap my knuckles on my head, saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” I gave myself very little grace because I didn’t deserve it.

In many ways, I am still this little girl and have been all along. When sex entered my life before I was married—a terrible sin according to my church and upbringing—I couldn’t forgive myself. It took me a decade to stop hating myself, and even then the disgust plagued me. Even now. A month ago when I asked my boyfriend about alcoholism and he denied it absolutely and was offended and hurt that I even asked, I punished myself by writing so deeply on my arm that I left scratches of the words in the flesh. Last night it was a bad date—turns out the dom/sub scene isn’t for me, and I have an aching cheek from a hard slap in the face to prove it. At least curiosity didn’t kill the cat.

I know I didn’t know last night would bother me so much, that I wouldn’t like it, but logic doesn’t matter when you’re a perfectionist: I’m an idiot. And now I have this memory in my head and I want it to go away and I want to stop feeling stupid, but I can’t. No matter how many times I try to accept what happened, learn from it, tell myself I didn’t do anything wrong by trying something new, and say “at least now I now,” I return to self-disgust. “Stupid, stupid girl.”

“At least I know now” is meaningless jibber-jabber when you’re a perfectionist because it is nearly impossible to see the merits of a “bad” situation. You can’t see that something was learned—you’re too busy hating yourself, bemoaning your idiocy, damning yourself—which means you don’t see how to modify your behavior for better in the future. Which means you repeat the cycle: similar situation, same approach, same result, do it again. When I was nineteen and “committing the sin” of unmarried sex—and being raped—I kept putting myself in the same situation. I was so preoccupied with damning myself I couldn’t modify.

I’m not going to let happen to last night’s experience. Trust me, I’m not going to put myself in that situation again. “At least I know now” doesn’t calm my self-hatred or regret. It doesn’t silence the self-berating. But I do know now, and with careful practice I am starting to be able to see beyond my perceived damnable mistakes and take something of value away. I didn’t like last night; therefore, I won’t do it again.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m questioning my morals. I’m questioning my intelligence. I’m certain there is more to be taken away from last night, but I can’t sooth the hatred or the feeling of failure or the disgust with myself long enough to break down the mental and physical components of the experience to learn anything.

My perfectionism tells me I should have known last night would go poorly, that I should have avoided my college boyfriend, that I should have obeyed my parents, that I should have known the correct answers on the test. Mistakes aren’t allowed. Which means I’m worthless. At least as a perfect being. And since perfectionism is still my bane, that means I’m nothing. If I can’t be perfect, there is nothing in me that is redeemable. So I’m left living a life of nothingness, always striving for perfectionism, always failing. Talk about living in a bad cycle.

Perfectionism is one of the most challenging internal struggles in my life. It ebbs and flows with life’s situations, only a glowing ember when life is dull and the path ahead is clear, then flaring at the first hint of trouble or instability.  How do I learn to control something so fluctuating and yet so encompassing and powerful that it controls me instead? I can’t give you a straight, bona fide answer or solution. I haven’t beat it yet. But I can tell you what I do know and what I’ve been told by wise people.

Give yourself grace. You are allowed to make mistakes. You aren’t stupid for making them. Forgive yourself when necessary, but then accept what has happened as just that: something that happened. You’re allowed to live.

The affirmation “I radically accept myself” comes to mind. Accept all of who you are: the good, the bad, the confused, the sad, the happy, every decision, every action.

Know you are not worthless. You exist, which makes you priceless. Nothing you can or will do changes that. Period.

Tell yourself you don’t have to be perfect, and believe it. It’s far easier said than done, I know. But do it. Say it over and over again. Change your perspective. Change your expectations for yourself.

Love yourself. No matter what happens, no matter what you think about you, don’t stop.

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