I'm a Recovering Perfectionist
If you’re reading this and ever wanted to know how to destroy me via my greatest weakness, you’re in luck, because I’m about to lay it all out. Simply put, I hate competition because there is a chance that I will lose (read: I hate losing). When I try new hobbies or activities, and I’m not immediately good at it, then I have a tendency to quit (read: I want to be the best). I used to not take constructive criticism well because it meant that I was not perfect (read: I am a perfectionist). Clinging to the word “perfect” is, and has been, debilitating. Life choices ranging from not joining the local swim team because I didn’t want to risk losing competitions to not stepping up in leadership roles I was overqualified for because I was afraid of not being able to elevate the team has stunted my social, emotional, and professional development.
So, here’s my ugly truth: I am a perfectionist. If I don’t have the exact right conditions for a project, I won’t start it until I do. I have such unreasonable and unattainable standards for myself that if I make a mistake, you can find me throwing myself a pity party because anything that is less than above and beyond is considered a failure in my all-or-nothing brain.
That may sound harsh, but I’ve been my own worst critic for as long as I can remember. To give you a glimpse into my world, here are some very real examples of what my “all-or-nothing” thinking looks like:
I don’t have time to change my bedsheets because I’m too busy to do laundry today.
I made a mistake and, therefore, I failed totally and completely.
After trying yoga for the first time and not being able to do crow pose, I’ve decided that I’m just bad at yoga and should never do it ever again.
For most of my life, the phrase “healthy medium” wasn’t in my vocabulary. After being exposed to cognitive-behavioral therapy I realized that my perfectionism is attributed to unhealthy thinking patterns that used to seem inherent to me. The most pertinent unhealthy, or unhelpful, thinking pattern that enables my “extreme” tendencies and my perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking is a cognitive distortion that shapes how we see the world; it oversimplifies the world in a negative way. In my case, my view of the world has been so skewed and negative that I developed an obsessive fear of failure, which influenced my perfectionistic behaviors.
Honestly, though, I like being a perfectionist. My perfectionism is as much my greatest strength as it is my greatest weakness. My perfectionism is an asset in my professional life. I am detail oriented and anyone who has worked with me knows that. I take pride in my ability to consider situations from every angle and fine comb my work. My theory is that, on an individual level, our greatest strengths are just one side of a coin, and on the opposite side lies our greatest weakness.
When I catch myself being my own bully, I make an effort to remember what lies on the other side of the coin: the side that is cautious and takes her time; the side that is organized and triple checks everything; the side that gives it her all in everything she does. When I keep the positives and my own successes in mind, I bring the world back into focus. My chronic cognitive distortions skew the proportions of my apparent “failures” to be monumental when they were no bigger than a watermark in the grand scheme of this life. As is the human condition, we learn and grow from our mistakes as best we can, and I think that’s what we are all doing: the best we can in this moment on the expansive journey that is life.
Yasmeen Yahya is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work reflects her passion for social justice, finding balance in a chaotic world, and simply navigating life as 20-something in the big city. You can find her work here at Pass/Fail and at Pants Optional. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find Yasmeen organizing something, listening to an audiobook, or delving into her latest obsession. This month, it's the wonders of therapy.