Perfectionism is one of those things that’s become rose-tinted through social media recently. People see it as a badge of honour that means you’re the best at what you do, you’re a true creative with a talent for something that ‘normal’ people find difficult. The apparent downside of perfectionism is that you’ll always be striving for the utmost you can achieve, which makes you a force to be reckoned with. But what’s it really like living with perfectionism?
It takes many forms, and obviously I do not have experience of them all, so this post is really about what I know and have experienced in my own life; it’s not an exhaustive list, nor does it cover any other form of perfectionism other than the one perspective I have on it. But from my experience, there are several very big problems with perfectionism that I’ve been thinking about recently.
Perfectionism is not taken seriously
The rise of social media has also given rise to the trend of romanticising a lot of mental health issues, and perfectionism is a big one. People think there’s a certain badge of honour that comes with being able to say “oh I’m just never happy with this” and they don’t stop to think that real perfectionism is in fact, so much more than simply not being happy with a final product of some sort. Because people diagnose themselves with problems they don’t really have, it makes it very difficult for people genuinely suffering from these issues to be taken seriously. If you say anything about having any mental health struggles, there’s always someone sitting behind their keyboard tutting and rolling their eyes at the ‘attention-seeking millennial who likes to whine about anything’.
Perfectionism consumes time, energy, resources, and joy
In my experience of perfectionism, it’s like a plague of locusts. It devours a huge portion of your life and leaves little left behind. From the hours upon hours that you’ll never get back, the physical and mental energy it saps while you struggle to do something “properly”, to taking all the fun, happiness and joy out of any situation, perfectionism is a huge drain. People often don’t realise that it’s the sort of thing that stops you sleeping, stops you eating, stops you remembering to look after yourself; you’re simply consumed with the one thing your perfectionism has focussed on and can’t do much else until it’s done. The irony of that, of course, is that it’s never done and eventually (for me at least) you have to teach yourself how to let things go unfinished.
Sometimes perfectionism makes you unmotivated, unconfident, and useless
There are times you think to yourself “there’s no point in trying so I won’t bother” and instead you do nothing that day and then you blink and it’s ten years later and that book you wanted to write is still just some yellowed notes stuffed into some folder you may or may not have thrown away. I’ve had periods of time where being a perfectionist has resulted in me simply sitting staring at a wall hoping whatever I need to do will just do itself. There are bouts of it that make you utterly useless and completely unmotivated and unable to do the most basic of tasks. Only this time it’s not because you’re consumed by it and you’ve forgotten to be a person, it’s because the overwhelming sense of stress and anxiety that comes from it makes you incapable of doing anything at all.
Perfectionism is not the honourable, struggling artist type of ‘problem’ that so many people like to think they ‘suffer’ from. It’s a lot more complex, a lot more individual, and a lot harder to live with than those without it would think. Being able to understand the whole scope of perfectionism is impossible for me; I know people who struggle with perfectionism in a way that frequently renders them incapable of even getting out of bed, never mind going outside or feeding themselves. And I count myself lucky to have a wider understanding than so many, although I’m still learning a huge amount from other people about their experience as well! It’s a never ending thing, really. But hopefully anyone struggling has an amazing support network and people around them who are willing to learn and understand.