Perfectionism: My Greatest Enemy

Perfectionism. There are a lot of people who want to be successful and do/look their best. For most people, that’s fine. For some people, like me, it becomes an obsession. Not all obsessions are alike. I’m obsessed with perfection because my OCD equates perfection with self-worth and evading risk.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t obsessed with perfection–in myself, in my surroundings, in the people around me. I always just thought everything had to be perfect. A few examples:

  • Ponytails were a nightmare. I had to have my hair pulled perfectly back, smoothly, no loops, with perfect symmetry on the back of my head. If I couldn’t get it right, I would be extremely upset. Sometimes I’d cry or throw a fit. Sometimes I would spend whole hours fixating on how terrible I must look and what a failure I was for not being able to do something that looked so easy when others did it.
  • I was jealous of kids who had better handwriting than me. I worked so hard at having pretty handwriting, but when I saw someone else’s that was better than mine, I became obsessed with making mine perfect and always feeling like I didn’t measure up. I was in second grade when this started. It wasn’t just handwriting; it was everything–reading, writing, math, science, etc. There are subjects I’m just not good at, and when I couldn’t be perfect, I became distressed. The only time in my life I was ever comfortable with receiving a B grade was when I rebelled against a teacher who was trying to make me read for my grade. When I got a B in Algebra after trying my hardest, I decided to have nothing to do with math unless I had to absolutely take it–all because I wasn’t perfect.
  • I didn’t like other children playing with my Barbie dolls. I needed my dolls to have perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect everything. I saw other kids’ Barbies, with their hair going every which direction, limbs popped off, clothes in bad condition, and I felt this agonizing fear of what would happen if they played with my dolls. I couldn’t bear the thought of my toys being less than perfect.
  • I hated getting a wrinkle in a page or dog-earing a page in a book. To this day I struggle to write in textbooks, or any book for that matter, and it freaks me out that people can do it so casually. To me, it’s like destroying the perfection of the book or magazine.

The list goes on and on. To most people, these appear to just be quirks of my personality. Even my mother is surprised by how much of this is actually OCD. The way my therapist puts it is this: “If you think it could be OCD, it almost certainly is.”

Until I started learning about OCD, I thought my perfectionist traits could be easily explained by other things, like my environment. But the truth is, it’s always been the OCD. My parents always encouraged me to do my best, but they didn’t have a problem if I wasn’t good at something. I just felt like I had to be the best at everything. I have always quit anything I didn’t take to quickly, because I knew I couldn’t be perfect and couldn’t handle the stress of not being perfect. Even writing, the thing I’m probably best at, is extremely difficult for me. I don’t believe I’m any good, despite what people tell me, because I’m not perfect.

For years, I haven’t known how to allow imperfection in myself, and this has led to a slew of compulsions to deal with it. One thing I struggle with is asking for reassurance. I ask everyone around me how I did on a project or a social situation, and I keep asking until I feel like the anxiety has lessened some. For example, a couple of my friends are in class with me. When I give a presentation, I end up asking them several times afterward how I did. And it’s not just “How did I do?” My questions get very specific. Or I’ll say negative things about myself, which I know will result in them saying positive things to make me feel better. Sometimes the anxiety I’ve had over a presentation lasts days, with my chest feeling tight and me being unable to focus on anything else. Sometimes the reassurance compulsion helps. Usually it doesn’t. But it’s so hard to stop it.

If my brain were able to be logical, I would recognize that not getting a perfect grade would not end the world. I would cause no disasters. My family and friends would not consider me to be a failure. I would not be ruining chances at jobs. I would not be destroying my entire future. But OCD tells things differently. It says, If you get a B or lower, you are a failure. You’re not good enough. You’re supposed to be perfect. How will you ever get a job with a B? No one will respect you. You look like you’re just not trying hard enough. Or maybe you’re not smart enough. You’re supposed to be perfect. Maybe you should just give all this up. You’re not perfect. You need to be perfect though. It’s a requirement.

My OCD brain tells me similar things for practically everything I do. It’s an exhausting way to live. For years, I’ve tried to keep up the appearance that everything’s fine, that I balance things well. But I don’t, because everything I do causes me this level of anxiety. I feel this way about every paper, every job task, every social situation, even getting dressed in the morning. And it’s finally led to a near-complete breakdown.

This is how so many people with OCD live. They work really hard, and you think they’ve got it together. You might even envy them. But the truth is, it’s a miserable existence, especially when suffering in silence. Many people with OCD will never get the help they need for this; they may not even know it’s OCD, just as I didn’t for years. We just feel this need to be perfect, that we are personally responsible for so much more than we could possibly have control over. We feel that if we aren’t perfect, we’re letting someone down, or we’re causing harm to befall ourselves or others.

I’ve often thought that if I do badly or people see me be imperfect, it will reflect terribly on everyone I know, and it will cause all kinds of damage. In my old job as an editor, I believed that if readers found one mistake in a book I edited, they would think the author was a total failure, and I would know it was my fault. That author’s career would be over because of me. No one would know except me–and the author, of course. But that would be enough. I knew I would hate myself for destroying that career. But how could that possibly be my fault? And how many people really write off an author because of one mistake? I just finished a Stephen King book in which I found a character name error. Is anyone ignoring Stephen King now? No. Because imperfection isn’t as bad as my OCD makes it out to be.

This is how I lived my life. I don’t know what life is like without the constant pressure of needing to be perfect. I know that I’ve felt at the end of my rope several times over the last few years. I know that I haven’t been myself this past year. For the first time this semester, I didn’t experience anxiety about my grades on papers, not because of treatment, but because I’m actually too tired of fighting to care. That is extremely unlike me. But the anxiety is too much. Many people with OCD are procrastinators because they know the anxiety will come with the task ahead, and they don’t want to deal with it. Procrastination is a sort of avoidance compulsion. That’s me. Always been a procrastinator, but I always finish my tasks because the fear of not finishing is greater.

Basically, my life is defined by fear–especially the fear of imperfection.

Working on this in therapy is slowly starting to help. Therapy has been hard because I want to be perfect, but this is not a therapy one can be perfect at. I need to be imperfect. I need to allow myself to take time with therapy. My therapist keeps reminding me that it’s okay to be imperfect, that it’s okay to be human. It’s not as hard to believe now. It’s still not an easy belief; I have to tell myself in every situation, “You don’t have to be perfect.”

I’m a little scared of who I will be when this is all over. I don’t know how to be my best without perfectionism and fear. That’s always been my MO. But I know whatever I will be, I will be healthier. I will be capable of taking on challenges without going absolutely crazy with stress. And that’s a very good thing, something I really need.