When I was a young woman, I didn’t just strive to be perfect, I strove to be a perfectionist. I had been told by society, by my family from my earliest memories, that to be a perfectionist was a good thing. Society has so many messages for women, one of the most prevalent being that in order to be successful, we have to be better. We have to be perfect.
No blemishes on our character. No delay on follow through. No little mistakes in our work. No flaws in our reactions to others. No loss of control. If we want to be in STEM we can’t just be good at math and science, we have to be great. If we want to go into politics, we can’t just have a grasp of sociopolitical norms, we must understand them to the nth degree. If we want to be promoted in a company, our family cannot come first, our work must be without reproach. There are so many messages of perfection imposed on us, I cannot possibly list them all.
This destructive need for perfection is imposed on marginalized women even more deeply. While this is not my story to tell, it would be irresponsible of me not to acknowledge that truth. Whatever pressures I have felt, have been visited on my BIPOC & LGBTQ sisters even more heavily.
Perfectionism drives people to be concerned with achieving unattainable ideals or unrealistic goals, often leading to many forms of adjustment problems such as depression, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and tendencies and a host of other psychological, physical, relationship, and achievement problems in children, adolescents, and adults. Recent data show that perfectionistic tendencies are on the rise among recent generations of young people. – Thomas, Curran (1)
It is imperative we break this destructive cycle for all of us.
My mother was one of the most loving people I have ever known. She was also the person in my life (and the lives of my siblings) who insisted that doing our best meant perfection. In a way, her belief in us and our ability to achieve perfection (if we just tried hard enough) was a testament to how highly she thought of us, but it fed debilitating feelings of failure for me whenever (too often) I did not reach that measure of perfection.
It took years of fighting suicidal depression and anxiety before I realized that my need to be perfect was destroying my ability to be happy.
[P]erfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems. – Etienne Benson (2)
One way this need to be perfect manifested itself was in my writing. Once I published, my goal was to turn in books that required no revisions. If I got revision notes, I believed I had failed to write a “perfect” book. I convinced myself I wasn’t actually looking to write the perfect book as even I realized that goal was a bit over the top. It just had to be perfect for that publisher (and editor). I would have to read through revisions letters multiple times just to come to terms with my sense of failure and the negative underlying messages I believed my editors were trying to give me.
You didn’t try hard enough. You made mistakes. You’re not that good of a writer. And the litany of soul destroying thoughts went on and on.
I would force myself to reread the nice things my editors wrote, but even to this day I struggle to believe those bits, thinking it’s like a mom believing her children are gorgeous and smart and all the good things. It’s their job. Insecurity is such a damaging force in the life of a creative and yet it feels like it is such a natural part of that life too.
I cannot pinpoint the moment I realized that revision notes were not an indication of failure on my part. (But it came after more than two years in therapy and some very painful inner revelations about my relationship with my mother, my world and how I interacted with my own children.) It finally dawned on me that revisions are, in fact, an opportunity to improve my book. To make it better, but no…not perfect.
A new Harlequin Presents author recently described revisions as Spanx for her books and I wanted to hug her. I’d finally, after 17 years of being published come to terms with what a revisions letter meant, but she has it figured out already.
If you struggle with perfectionism, it is my sincere hope you spend some time each day reminding yourself that perfection is overrated. It is also unattainable as a permanent condition. You are not a failure for the very humanity that makes you compassionate and capable of loving others without them needing to be perfect.
Believe in yourself, not your perfection!
Hoping today is not perfect, but filled with moments that give you joy.
1. Curran, Thomas; Hill, Andrew P. (April 2019). “Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016” (PDF). Psychological Bulletin.
2. Benson, Etienne (November 2003). “The many faces of perfectionism“. Monitor, Vol 34, No. 10 pg. 18