Breaking free from perfectionism.
Perfectionism is an ambiguous term in our day and time, shifting colors like a chameleon, mutating from a small thought into an entire paradigm that separates us from the present moment.
As a many-headed monster, it not only promotes a false, utopian self, but it seems to care for you with such patience and consistency that it could easily be mistaken for a friend. Well, It is not your friend, but your foe. And It is not building you a dream life-house, but digging you an early grave.
At a job interview, when they ask you about your biggest strength, it sounds good to say: ‘I’m a perfectionist,’ yet you should remember to add: But when needed, I can be very flexible.
A flexible perfectionist… Really?
In a world where humans and nature are slowly being eliminated to make more space for objects, perfectionism could be a virtue. Getting the job done perfectly. Never being satisfied until every little detail is in its right place. As if you knew all the right places.
Some symptoms of perfectionism:
- Postponing projects because you don’t have all the right tools to complete them.
- Replaying past conversations and actions in your head to the point of exhaustion, thinking of what you could have said or done better.
- Being uncomfortable in your skin. This can go from constantly checking yourself out in the mirror, trying to catch a better angle of your face or body, to suffering from an eating disorder and all the in-betweens.
- Spending precious hours of your life on details of little importance, just because they add to the idea of a perfect project, only to realize that when all is said and done, no one really cares about the dot on your ‘i’; that half your time and effort would have gotten the job done and even spared you some room for enjoyment.
- Pushing away your loved ones, because they aren’t the way they ‘should’ be.
- Feeling like a mouse on a spinning wheel, chasing after your dreams desires as if they were someone else’s shadow – except that the closer you get to them, the further away they move from you.
I am a recovering perfectionist. And I would like to stop kicking my own ass. Because, among other reasons, it hurts.
Now, I’m not saying that a pilot shouldn’t worry about all the flight details, or that a mechanical engineer should overlook any part of the production process, or that a surgeon should operate intuitively.
Getting your answers right on a test is not Perfectionism.
Neither am I suggesting that difficulties cannot be overcome or that a small amount of water, with diligence and persistence, cannot shape an entire canyon.
On the contrary, being human means being in constant change, and this change involves faith in what you can’t yet see or touch. It also implies that you have the ability and power to create an alternative reality, more suitable to the real You.
But there’s a fine line between fighting for your ideals, for your life, and feeding on the contradictory images that you have built as an alias for yourself.
Figuring out how to jump over a wall is problem-solving and adapting. Perfectionism would be the delusion that if you just stare at the wall long enough or wait for the stars to align, your body will somehow turn into water and you might as well pass through.
Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. […]
To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, perform a perfect audition monologue. Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.
No. We should not.
~ Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Perfectionism makes more sense when applied to machines or procedures. Even then, computers get old and there’s always an updated, faster, better version of everything.
But when entering the human sphere, the deadly P extends beyond just a simple figure of speech, turning into a virus that infects our perception of ourselves and as a result, the entire way we operate.
In the little things, it may seem like an asset, but when it comes to self-love and acceptance, there’s no such thing as ‘little.’
At the bottom of everything we do, there is a shared modus operandi, the same life script that serves as a foundation to all our thoughts and actions, no matter how small or big the task in our hands. And soon, our most ‘perfect’ asset becomes our liability.
We turn into machines. Except that we are Not machines.
As it is the case with any virus, the early signs of perfectionism are barely noticeable: a little cough of procrastination here and there, a small fever of disappointment with oneself and others, a bit of sore throat and runny nose, mainly out of frustration because of all the clogged channels of your creativity.
And once you’re pale enough, Lady Perfectionism herself welcomes you through the gates of hell:
C’mon Loser, try a little harder. You’ll be fine, once [this or that] happens, once you throw up or starve yourself enough, once you get it all together and back under control, get those abs tight, move out of your parents’ basement, lose that extra weight, meet The One (or one of many), have that child before you’re 40, publish that book, make that money, get your face in magazines, only then… only then. Just sacrifice your presence for the greater good. No one is watching you right now, anyway. Not until you…
Life is a process in which we’re constantly moving, going two steps forward and one step back.
But regardless of what or where you’ll be in a month, a year or twenty years from now, you can’t be someone or something other than what you are at this exact moment, which by the way, is the only amount of time we can handle.
Perfectionism is everything except the now. It is a parasite, it feeds on presence.
It is not only an enemy of art, but also of community and of the entire concept on which the whole of nature and life is based: synergy.
Where do you end and where does otherness begin? Whatever your answer to this question, are you sure?
So recently, in my late twenties, I finally stopped pretending, although—and here comes the deadly P, once again—I’m still not perfect at being imperfect. I realized I was sick but I couldn’t remember when I’d become infected. Maybe in my childhood, when my immune system was still not entirely developed and some imperfect son of a bitch looked at me disapprovingly.
Our biggest fears and deepest wounds are created in that tender period, when we can’t yet distinguish between truth and lies, when everything is a fairy tale and we’re all princesses and cowboys.
Ever since then I’ve carried the lie, the scarlet letter of perfectionism that has often kept me from being in the right place at the right time.
I’ve boycotted all my relationships, until my latest failure which somehow succeeded in opening my eyes. Almost every day, I used to make up stories that would substitute reality – think creative running on psycho.
If, say we were at a dirty-looking supermarket in some South American town that’s not even on the map, I’d say:
Hey, you know what? We’re not here right now. We’re in Venice. We’re about to have dinner at our own Palazzo, and you’re not wearing that ugly T-shirt or I, this old sweater… we’re actually dressing up for dinner and the guests are waiting. So let me fix your bow tie.
It may sound romantic, except that all I can remember now from my last relationship are things that never happened. I missed out on so many rainy, muddy days, filled with romance, smelly dogs, cockroaches in my apartment, naked joy for life, ugly hotel rooms, the neighbors yelling, the neighbors frying things, because well, we were at the fucking Palazzo, having high-class dinner with our imaginary guests before we left on our fucking gondola.
I tried to make him perfect and not being able to do anything else, he returned me the favor. It hurt. So this is it, you mean to say? I’m not the one you’re looking for? Yes, this is it. Face it. Eat it. You’re not the one. You’re not it. Read it again: You, the know-it-all, pretty bitch, are not enough!
But… what do you mean?
I mean that you’re so busy scripting out your life that you forget to live it. Who’s going to act in that movie of yours? When is it going to be played? Who’s going to want to see it?
And then you end up sore from so much writing, and swollen because the script is still inside of you, undigested – because let’s be honest, who could eat that? Please, don’t let it be your children. Don’t force them into being the actors for your life’s premiere. I am that hurt child and I hope to never be that hurting mother.
The worst kind of disease is the one you don’t know you have. Because it paralyzes you just enough so you can’t fall down on your knees and weep. You’re still that shit, not knowing that it smells.
You can say or hide all you want, but you can’t deny all the facts in your life — facts that end up following the invisible map at the very core of your being. Until that map is drawn with your own hands, you’re still sick, no matter where you are or who you’re with.
Oh and did I mention it is also terminal? All right, we’re all terminal to different degrees. You and I will disappear, soon enough. But this is murder I’m talking about.
I don’t want to be murdered, I’d like to die on my own terms, thank you! I don’t want to skip through this life, in the pursuit of a more suitable existence, that’s always playing hard to get.
So, realizing the evil that had been done to me, I did what any reasonable, imperfect, fucked-up human being would do. I said: Enough!
After all that has been taken away from us at different moments in history and in our own lives—wisdom, freedom, comfort, you name it—this is one power that still remains untouched. The power to say: fuck off! The power to decide what will and what won’t stay.
Even if I don’t really know where I begin or where I end, or how or when or who I happen to be, I know how to say: Stop!
My goodbye letter to Perfectionism went something like this:
Dear Fucking Monster,
You’ve ruined my life, my art and my relationships. I haven’t finished one single project because of you and those I have finished, I never wanted to display because what if they were not good enough?
Thanks to you, I’ve never been at home anywhere, with anyone. You’ve sucked all the marrow from my bones, and used it to paint an impossible picture of me, somewhere, in a parallel universe; an untouchable image of what I and the world around me might have been, if this or that, or this, or that, eternally.
I’ve unconsciously let you use me to create an illusion of life, an ephemeral balloon that pops every time I touch it.
So I’m now letting you go. Yes… you heard me. You’re fired! You’ve been a bad employee. Hell, I didn’t even know you were working here. From this day on, I say I am enough.
PS. And no, you can’t have any of my dreams as a severance package.
I couldn’t think of a more fitting, parting song than this Radiohead classic:
As for the recovery process, meditation helps, because when meditating, I am sufficient. It’s the one time in my day when I don’t need or want anything.
Friends help, because they can be your honest and imperfect mirror.
Work helps, because when fully and genuinely dedicated to an activity that makes you happy, you don’t have much time left to pursue imaginary perfection.
Exercise and diet help boost the physical side of the deal which cannot be separated from the whole, as long as you don’t turn them into yet more shortcuts to perfecting yourself.
If you think you might be infected by this virus and would like some support, let’s start a Perfectionists Anonymous group, in which we can begin by telling each other with sad eyes and a snorting laugh how badly we’ve screwed up today or for the past 20 years and forgive ourselves for not being all that amazing shit we’re supposed to.
Because we may not be the ones we imagined, but we are, after all, the ones we’ve secretly been waiting for.