My name is Claire and I suffer from perfectionism.
This is not what you think. It’s dangerous and deceptive and destructive; it’s not just about liking my cushions in a certain order on my bed or always trying my best.
I want to talk about this because it’s important. I want to talk about it because I know I am not the only one. I want to talk about it because there are armies of people out there just like me and because the things I have realized are not mine alone; they belong to you too.
I have spent most of my life misunderstanding myself and judging myself harshly because I didn’t understand that many of my ways of relating to myself and others came from my perfectionism. Because I didn’t understand this, I also didn’t understand that this perfectionist behavior was all driven by a complete lack of self-esteem.
Before I realised any of this (which was pretty recent), I just felt like there were things that got in the way and things that I wished I could change about myself. These things all felt disparate—strewn across the canvas of my being in a way that was highly disorganized and totally confusing and horrible to look at. I didn’t see any unification in them. They made me feel disjointed. Incoherent. Completely uncontained.
Essentially, these things felt meaningless.
When I started to understand perfectionism, I was able to grab hold of all these rambling, random threads that spewed out of me and give them form. I could gather them all into one central point that was transparent and beautiful in its simplicity—and that made me break down in tears and sob like a little girl.
I realized that my need for approval, my excessively high standards for myself, my inability to take criticism without feeling worthless, my procrastination to do the things I want to do, my intensely critical attitude toward all aspects of myself (my appearance, my intellect, my judgment, my behavior), my need for others to approve of me, my social anxiety, my all-or-nothing thinking, my feeling that what I do isn’t good enough—it’s all because of one thing: I don’t think I’m good enough. I think that I am inferior. And what an absolute #f*cksandwich that is to eat.
Buried underneath this lack of self-worth lies the fact that I have spent my life feeling ashamed of who I am. Because it is such a painful thing to feel about myself, I have spent my life running away from this fact. Unable to look at it. Or admit it. Not even knowing it except on some distant, veiled level just beyond my conscious mind. The kind of level where although you don’t “know” it, when you finally realize it—if you ever do—you also realize that you have always known it.
You just didn’t know you knew it.
If you suffer from a lack of self-esteem, it’s understandable that you might not really know it. At least, you might not be aware of the many ways it manifests in your relationship toward yourself, the world, and the people in it. When we feel ashamed of ourselves, we tend to deny it. It’s painful, and it causes distress. We deny it in a tragically foolish attempt to avoid the suffering that realizing it entails.
And so, in our denial of a painful truth we develop all sorts of neuroses and subconscious behavior patterns as a way to cover up and make up for the fact that we deem ourselves inferior.
The thing that I can laugh at now—but couldn’t before—is that in my attempt to avoid suffering through my lack of self-worth, I created layer upon layer of new problems that caused far more harm than the problem I so desperately sought to escape.
I know I’ve been suffering from perfectionism for most of my life, and now that I understand the myriad ways in which perfectionism manifests, I recognize that so many aspects of my behavior and emotions have been neurotic coping mechanisms—my subconscious trying to protect me, but just doing more damage.
My excessively high standards have been a way to bolster my self-esteem—seeking external “success” to make me feel good about myself from the outside in. Through my self-criticism I have avoided being hurt by others’ criticism. Being afraid to start the things I want to start has protected me from the devastating blow of any potential failure. My inability to admit my vulnerable feelings to others—if I don’t show any weakness, I wont feel it. My indecision—if I don’t make any decisions, I don’t have to face the regret of having made a bad one. My preoccupation that others won’t approve of me—if I assume that others won’t, then there’s less hurt if they don’t. And so the list goes on.
Realizing all of this hasn’t been all nuts and honey, but it has given me so much more self-compassion. I can see that all of these things are not my fault. I didn’t sit down one day and say, “Hey, I’ll take low selfesteem and a shit oad of neuroses, please!”
I didn’t choose to be this way.
It hasn’t made my life easier or happier. It’s made life tough for me in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people with high self-esteem will never have to know.
Being a perfectionist landed me with an eating disorder. I spent most of my life making myself miserable whilst feigning a sense of sovereignty. It’s absurd and farcical and it makes me want to cry and laugh at the same time. But I can’t do that. And so, in the dark comedy going on in my head right now, my inner perfectionist says:
“Whaaaaat? You can’t laugh and cry at the same time? You’re pathetic. Just go home. Later I’ll help you come up with a highly dysfunctional way to avoid ever feeling the shame of not being able to laugh and cry at the same time and you’d thank me for it only you won’t because my ways are that cunning that you’ll never actually know about them unless you seriously wake up. But you’re a loser so I doubt you’ll ever do that. Thank you and goodnight.”
Perfectionism blocks self-knowledge. It is the antithesis of self-compassion, too. When we carry an unidentified belief that who we are isn’t good enough, we become powerless. We have no sense of self. We cannot know ourselves, because we spend our life trying not to be ourselves based on the faulty and dangerous judgment, formed way back in our early childhood under circumstances that were out of our control, that who we are is something to be ashamed of—something to run away from.
Knowing ourselves, we get autonomy. That’s where so much magic happens. That’s how we heal.
And the interesting and even more absurd thing is that it’s not the lack of self-esteem that has actually been the problem. It’s the coping mechanisms that I have developed; it’s the neuroses that have been born out of my subconscious determination to keep myself from myself. To never let me know my own vulnerability. To never let me feel the pain of my reality. The problem isn’t the low self-esteem or feeling that I’m not good enough; it’s the inability to acknowledge this to myself. When we resist these things, they persist in us. They subvert us. They divide us. But when we are unified, we have power.
As I sit writing this now, I can say that I still suffer from a lack of self-esteem. I know enough about psychology to know that self-esteem is formed in early childhood and that it is a hard thing to totally remedy as an adult. I will probably spend my entire life suffering from it in one way or another. Or maybe I won’t. I don’t know yet. But the incredible and infinitely interesting thing is, this doesn’t really matter.
It doesn’t matter, because I am not running away from it (as successfully as a hamster on a wheel). It doesn’t matter, because I am giving myself permission to feel this way. I’m not resisting anymore. It doesn’t matter, because I am leaning in and loving myself through this knowledge, and love is my greatest strength.
Now that I understand and admit this about myself, it’s like I’ve just turned on the 800 lumen torch I bought my dad for his 68th birthday; I feel lit-up and can see all of me. When these neurotic perfectionist tendencies rear their heads, instead of fueling the downward spiral of shame upon shame, they can just be there, because I see through them. I know where they’re coming from.
To know where we are coming from is a powerful thing. I tell myself that I am good enough. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have nothing to hide. It’s okay to feel this way, and it’s not my fault.
I am healing.
We were not put on this planet to be perfect. It doesn’t matter if you lack self-esteem or self-worth. It doesn’t even matter if you feel ashamed of yourself. It only matters that you stop running away from yourself. Learn to look your whole self in the eye. Understand where you are coming from.
Love yourself, knowing your reality.Then you can get to where you want to go, with your heart open and the light switched on.
Yours in courage and love,
Author: Claire Diane
Apprentice Editor: Julie Barr