The need to be perfect means that average or anything less than perfect feels like a failure.
Sounds like an obvious equation, doesn’t it? But for many of us, especially women, the pressure to be seen as perfect comes at us from many angles. If we look back at the 50s and 60s, long before social media became the scapegoat for our mental wellbeing demise, – magazines, TV commercials and sitcoms, not to mention neighbours and even friends, women were constantly programmed to look and act a certain way. Is my house spotless, are the kids are clean and well mannered, has the husband’s ego and stomach been topped up at regular intervals? And so, the tick list of what it meant to be a perfect woman went on.
Skipping towards the next couple of decades, preferably with a high cut leotard and lashings of lip-gloss on, the perfectionism programming of the 70s and 80s, and how attractive we should strive to be, became the superficial filter in which western women were forced to check themselves through.
Recent decades however, have added a new list of perfectionism criteria – not that the list of previous requirements necessarily diminished – but now we’re told, with the added amplification of social media, that we need to juggle all previous elements while also holding down a successful career. Exhausted yet? Believe me, so am I.
When I was twelve-years-old and in the sixth grade I first met my perfectionist-self. I was close to being demoted to ‘The B Class’; a class that I thought, in my pre-pubescent mind, was for ‘the second bests’. Coming from a super high-performing family this didn’t need to be my problem, but my self-worth was so low it started to become a major issue, to the point where my unconscious desire for perfectionism had brought on my first bout of crippling depression and anxiety.
Aged just twelve, and in the sixth grade of my school life, I went looking for love and acceptance by studying with no less seriousness than if I was trying to get into Harvard Law. I studied morning, noon and night, eating meals at my study desk. I was committed to never being in the dreaded B class. And then something happened at the end of that year: I topped the class. After nearly flunking, I came first in the year. Everyone assumed it was because I was smart, but the truth was, I’d shut myself off from every other thing in my young life, other than whatever it took to reach the top of the class.
The ensuing validation of being made ‘Dux’ of my school, was incredibly gratifying. But what appeared to be the perfect outcome externally, what had begun, was a life-long pattern that would haunt me for most of my adult life – the need to be perfect, and the inner commitment to never, ever fail.
Later in my adult life, in my role as Chief Financial Officer at a major publishing company, I continued to demand perfection of myself. Success was not an option; it was critical to my survival. When you are a perfectionist, and a people pleaser, you don’t dare to take on your life purpose; the risk of failing is too great and others needs are more important than you own. Instead of pursuing my purpose in life, or even considering what that might be, I found meaning in monotonous spreadsheets and double-entry bookkeeping.
As part of the executive team, I was responsible for forecasting book sales and predicting how much stock to order for new or ongoing releases. One memorable day I was sitting in my office staring at a metaphorical dartboard in my head (my forecasting tool of choice), having consulted my peers, I signed off on another significant shipment of hard copies of the runaway best-seller, Fifty Shades of Grey.
A publisher’s dream, and a financial golden goose, this book seemed unstoppable, averaging one sale per second globally, at a time when there were concerning cracks beginning to form in the publishing industry. One major bookstore retailer in Australia had already gone bust, and the arrival of e-books was threatening the stability of our industry.
And then it happened. A week later sales stopped dead. Hard copies replaced digital copies at a rate I hadn’t foreseen. Not only had I missed the bull’s eye, but I’d also missed the entire dartboard.
The thing was we all (the executive team) got it wrong, but I took it personally.Even though it was a shared failure, I experienced the failure completely as my own. Getting a stock forecast wrong in publishing is not an uncommon phenomenon, but some failures feel bigger than others, and I had taken on the emotional burdens of my company. Women do that, we make ourselves the emotional beasts regardless of our title or titles: mother, entrepreneur, wife, girlfriend, CEO.
And when looking out for everybody else, we don’t get time to look inwards at our own lives. The world was celebrating this successful bestseller and I was looking up to the Corporate Gods, my bosses, desperately trying to explain an unexplainable error.
I plummeted into depression, feeling the fifty shades of my failure.The failure wasn’t just quarantined to my job and a single incorrect stock forecast. Nothing felt right in my life anymore. I was now forced to slow down, to stop and understand what had gone wrong. Examining, exploring, thinking clearly about what mattered to me at this point in my life was the work I was called to do. I became aware that my purpose had not yet shown up in my life because I had not shown up for it in my life.
Life has taught me that the only way to overcome perfectionism and people-pleasing…is to fail. To let the disintegrating marriage, the bankruptcy, or the over-ordering of a best-selling book by a handful of zeros, to bring you to your knees. All these failures teach you a much-needed life lesson, that it’s okay to fail. In fact, a lot of the time, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
Perfectionists are irrational, obsessive and forget that there is a bigger picture. When perfectionists say they seek the truth, often what they really seek is validation, and no amount of external validation will ever feed their hungry soul. Overcoming perfectionism can feel impossible at times.
Workaholism – an expression of perfectionism – is an addiction that too often we are rewarded for. As a perfectionist, you get a lot of positive feedback. You receive validation, job promotions and sparkly new titles. There is zero motivation to overcome a way of being, that society places a great value on.
I had, however, discovered that the cost of my perfectionism was far outweighing the benefits. This realisation created a possibility for me to change. And one of these changes needed to be, that I had to stop wearing exhaustion as a badge of honour. I now see that when life decides it’s had enough of our perfectionism strategy, and our need to please, it conspires to free us from it by letting us fail. It is only then that we give ourselves the chance to grow into what we were truly destined to be. And that is, the now perfectly on-purpose version of me.