Perfectionism Is a Mental Illness and It's Ruining My Life
It's making me be bad at my job and awful to my girlfriend.
Image by Cei Willis
It is the common douchebag response – asked at a job interview what his biggest weakness is, he pretends to think for a moment before answering: "I guess I'd say my biggest problem is that I can be a bit of a perfectionist."
The impression he wants to give is clear: though he may sometimes be perceived a bit negatively, this is simply a byproduct of his excellent work; in other words, not a weakness but a strength. What the douchebag doesn’t know is that his idea of perfectionism is completely wrong. It has to be, because, if it wasn’t, he would've rather revealed his genitals to the interviewer than the fact he suffered from it.
Twenty-seven years after it began, I look at my life and see, because of perfectionism, I have nothing. I am a shell of a human being, tracing lines of an existence that is no longer my own. I write to you in this state, a single article to explain – and offset – the many years of waste.
As described by psychologist Don Hamachek in a 1978 study, there are two strains of perfectionism: normal and neurotic. The normal perfectionist strives for high standards but doesn’t let it affect his happiness. He is satisfied in his pursuit. But the neurotic perfectionist is miserable – his happiness is linked directly to the achievement, or non-achievement, of impossible goals. Because of this, he often falls prey to obsessive tinkering and procrastination.
Approximately 30 percent of the general population suffers from perfectionism. However, a study conducted in the US in 1999 reveals that the percentage among the "gifted" population is much higher: 87. Of this 87, though, only 30 percent is neurotic.
Although a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, neurotic perfectionism is different than straight-up OCD, in that, though a compulsion – and though sometimes used to relieve an obsession – the OCD sufferer knows that his behaviour is “wrong”, that it’s irrational. Whereas the neurotic perfectionist believes the inverse: that, in spite of the pain he’s enduring, his perfectionism is helping him reach standards he otherwise couldn’t.
It goes without saying that I am a neurotic perfectionist.
I am also a writer, and lately my work has slowed to the point where I spend days rewriting the same sentence. I believe the line will get better, and it does, but what is a reasonable amount of time to spend? Thirty seconds, two minutes, an hour? Not a couple of days.
And yet, though I know this to be true on all apparent levels, once I’m locked in on it, a sentence isn’t just words and information – rather an amorphous blob that must, under the threat of humiliation, be poked and prodded into absolute flawlessness before I even think about moving on.
At 27, it is, of course, unreasonable to expect success as a writer. Though Bret Easton Ellis is a good example of someone who "made it" early – he famously published his first book, Less Than Zero, at 21 – it’s very normal for a writer at my age to struggle. Not just to support himself financially, but to express himself in an artistically laudable way. And it’s a struggle because it has to be. Because, when writing about the human experience, pain is a necessary ingredient. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m struggling too much, or at least with the wrong stuff. I spend days on a sentence, making it sharper and more direct, but what about research, narrative, things like that?
So I must ask – in spite of my age – if I wouldn't be a better, more successful writer if I was more willing to fail.
Over the years, an abundance of studies – particularly those by psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett – have found links between perfectionism and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, drug addiction and increased suicide risk. Studies have also found links between perfectionism and physical problems like asthma, migraines, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. Because of this, perfectionists take more time off work and visit the doctor more than the average person.
Perfectionists also have a huge increased risk of death: 51 percent, due to – researchers suspect – high levels of stress.
Perfectionism affects every aspect of my life, not just writing. It tells me: "No matter what happened in the past, you can validate it now by being perfect." For example, eating; having been a fat child, I now eat the same way I write: slowly, so that the real, impulsive me needn’t be faced. Every mistake I make – which festers in my being, compounding my misery – goes unlearnt from in the belief that going backwards is a waste of time. Why analyse something when, at the count of ten, it no longer exists?
To explain – three or four times a day I go to the bathroom and, counting upwards, force myself to stop thinking. As the numbers get higher, my breathing becomes deeper and more pronounced, and it’s on this that I focus until, at the count of 10, I imagine that – for a few brief moments of unreality – everything is perfect. No sentence has been badly written, no bag of crisps lies empty on my bed. There is only blank space.
Inevitably, though, life must fill this space, and with that realisation – that the past I left behind is still there – I can only delude myself further that my will will be strong enough to beat it back, that, even among the bodies of the dead, I am undeniably born again. But my will will crumble, like it always does, and in minutes if not seconds I’ll see, at the sight of the single flaw, the failure that is my life, that is me, flesh and bone, average in every way.
Relationships suffer too – with children, family members, spouses. The relationship with my girlfriend is no different. She not only deals with the anger caused by my failures, I also hold her to the same brutal standards as I do myself. Which is wholly unfair, as, unlike me, she is a successful person. I tell her to work harder and pick apart her eating habits because I want the world around me to be as perfect as I want myself. So I criticise her endlessly, but she is what she is, the world is what it is, and only a fool would yearn for what isn’t there when both are so impossibly beautiful anyway.
My mentality has even lost me friends. In the last few years, twice, I’ve cut off people I was close with for years to escape flaws that, though real, and though vicious, I focused on too much. I used their flaws to absolve me of my responsibility as a friend, which was to help them. Maintaining the pretence I was perfect was impossible with them around, screaming their imperfections, and mine, in my face. I needed to be free and so I was (but not really).
I’ve been running away all my life. Staying and facing who I am has never been an option.
There’s no better example of this than when, at 15, I dropped out of school. I was bullied, kind of, though that doesn’t quite explain what went down. I was a sensitive kid, with emotional issues relating not just to my weight but to becoming evermore average academically – up to the age of 13, I was top of my class – and what I needed, both from my parents and school, was a support not given.
From my parents especially I needed something more than the inaction on offer. I needed them to confront that the shortcomings they'd bred me on – their sense of inferiority, a fear of emotion – had come home to roost. I was massively depressed and they did nothing because their failures frightened them more than me falling apart.
And so I ran, away from the boys who bullied me – but not really – away from the teachers who shamed me – but not really – away from, really, my real self: a bog-average student who threw up during PE class; who – though not a permanent target for abuse – wasn't the respect-commanding figure he'd once been; someone who, through excellence, was escaping the shitty existence he'd been dealt.
It's obvious that a lot of this – being a perfectionist, a writer – is a reaction against where I came from, against my parents' belief that neither of us, me nor them, would amount to anything. Every day I tell myself to embrace this, to champion that bit of madness inside me that can, though painfully, lift me above the future they thought me capable of.
But, I ask, would I be writing this if I still thought that were possible? Would I be feeling so broken and hopeless that, here now, I’m admitting to you that what I need most to keep going – so that any sort of future is possible – isn’t perfection, but some sense of happiness?
Just saying that word makes me uncomfortable. "Happiness" is a word for weak-minded people – for self-help gurus and "Please share this" Facebook posts. Consequentially it's a word I haven't spoken much in my time, except to say I'll have it when I'm perfect. But if I continue as I am, I know in my heart things will only get worse. I'll become even slower, even angrier. So if all my life I’ve run from who I am, maybe now is the time to stand still and face myself – my real self – regardless of the consequences.
What I’ll write will be imperfect, but so what? My sentences will be less sharp, less direct, and I'll seem more ridiculous and vulnerable than I’ll want to, but who cares? I'll eat and gain weight and maybe get fat again, but from all this might emerge a man more accepting of his flaws, someone better able to learn from them so that real progress towards success and, most importantly, happiness can be made, finally.
Perfectionism is treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the method of finding thoughts and actions that lead to problems and eradicating them. This requires the patient to endure the anxiety of confronting his flaws before, over time, learning to accept them and find satisfaction in his growth. I suppose, then, this article is my attempt at that: step one in a long, painful process that’ll see me eventually, when I work up the courage, going to therapy.
However, though I hope this article is the start of working and living in a way that’ll see me happier, who’s to say my will to be imperfect will be any stronger than it was to be the opposite? Even with this almost written, I still fear that I'll break down and edit it until there’s nothing left. Only time will tell, and as cliched as that sounds, maybe if I can accept this – that some things in life can’t be predicted – I’ll find the strength at the end of this sentence to send out what I have in the hope that, somehow, someone likes it.
Follow James on Twitter: @0jnolan
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