I have no qualms observing my surroundings and pointing out everything that I see wrong which can range from the dishes being put away incorrectly or mowing the yard in a pattern I don’t see fit; the organization of pantry’s and refrigerators to the bed not being made the way I think it should be. I can sense the lunacy in this reality even as I type these words. I have issues with perfectionism, and contrary to what I thought about striving to be perfect, it is not a good personality trait to live with. Perfect is unattainable so when I fail to reach my desire for it, I become extremely critical of myself and sometimes even lash out in critical rants about those around me. But, I’m coming to grips with understanding I am my own worst enemy and I cannot start playing the “blame game” when things don’t go how I think they should.
Perfectionism: A doctrine holding that religious, political, social or moral perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or is attainable.
For the perfectionist, everything and every aspect of life is dependent upon achievement and being noticed for that achievement. All self-worth is reliant upon the need for everything to be or appear to be perfect. Ultimately, it’s a safety mechanism that protects from controversy or conflict. The unfortunate side effect of this is being extremely judgmental of self and highly critical of others; the need for things to be perfect trumps everything else and ultimately promotes a state of dysfunction, rather than the higher quality of life being pursued. Being perfect is humanly impossible, which means setting standards that cannot be attained will only lead to anger and frustration – then loneliness and regret.
If I look back on my life, I can start to notice the patterns forming when I was a child and into my early teenage years. If I behaved or did something well, I was rewarded for that. If I didn’t reach my potential or performed poorly, I was not rewarded, thus triggering feelings of failure, depression and a desire to give up altogether. So, I began to formulate the conclusion that as long as I do everything perfectly, my life will work out and everything will be ok. I can recall the way I organized baseball cards, the need to have all of anything I was collecting such as old coins or action figures. Whatever it was, I wanted the best and I wanted it all – anything short was unacceptable in my eyes.
Another twist is perfectionists often have difficulty opening up to others out of extreme fear of rejection or being exposed to vulnerability. They do not bounce back from challenges or mistakes well because in their mind it solidifies their worst fears which is that they are not good enough – in turn this can cause long bouts of depression, and in my case, it was coupled with substance abuse, which sent the perfect life that I desired spiraling out of control. I was on a quest to numb out all the imperfections of my life, and subsequently, I numbed out everything else.
There was a large void in me that I could not seem to fill no matter how desperately I tried – and I certainly tried, albeit not in the healthiest of fashions. For me, it came in many forms like compulsive spending, over-eating or under-eating, sex, and alcohol abuse. Deep down, I felt so disorganized and unsure of myself that if everything around me was or seemed perfect, I felt safer and just maybe everything would be okay; maybe I’d skate through another day.
Another problem in my life of perfectionism was that I spent so much time and energy future tripping; I failed to stay in the moment at hand. I always thought if I had the perfect house with the perfect yard and the perfect family – then everything would be okay. That would make me feel happy and fulfilled. I repeatedly found this was not the case, yet I still craved to stay the course. I focused all my efforts on trying to make it better and better, but in the process I ignored things that were way more crucial like spending valuable time with my children or being grateful for what I already had right under my nose. To me and my skewed mind, it wasn’t perfect – so I had to keep chasing. What I ultimately ended up doing was chase everything and everybody out of my life and fall deeper into my depression and alcoholism.
I genuinely thought that all the things I did, provided, and helped with was showing my love and affection for my family and those around me. Achieving the next great thing is what drove me – it made me feel needed and important; like, “look at me, look what I did”. I was so focused on achieving that great life for my kids, progressing in my career and building a happy home. But I wasn’t connecting on any level other than I did “stuff” – and doing “stuff”, it turns out, is not the most proficient way to build meaningful connection with anything other than sorrow, regret and loneliness – let alone trying to maintain perfection in a house with two young children. My expectations were unrealistic and everybody suffered because of it. It left me in a house, empty of my kids, my wife and all the “stuff” I put before them.
So what did I have to do to escape the cycle of my pursuit for perfect? I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I had to make some major life decisions. Since I was also suffering from depression, anxiety and substance abuse – treatment seemed to be my best option. So I boarded a plane destined for Southern California and started yet another stint in rehabilitation. The first step was clearing my foggy mind and coming to terms with exactly where I was in life – nearly thirty years old and starting over; accepting my part of why I was in the position I was in, and starting to develop an overwhelming desire for change. I had to leave my comfort zone and take some risks – listen to some direction and trust in the process; give it a fair chance to work. My life has since improved and the number of good days are becoming far more regular. I still have bad days, but I know that I have some new skills and tools to use and one day at a time – the sky is the limit.