Perfectionism Is a Mental Illness and It's Ruining My Life

Perfectionism affects every aspect of my life. It tells me: "No matter what happened in the past, you can validate it now by being perfect." Every mistake I make festers in my being, compounding my misery.

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Jan 29 2014, 1:00pm

Image by Cei Willis

It's 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, his weakness is not a weakness but a strength. What the douchebag doesn’t know is that his idea of perfectionism is completely wrong. If he really had a problem with perfectionism, 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 find that thanks to perfectionism, I have nothing left. 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 in hopes of producing a single article that can explain—and hopefully offset—my 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 that 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, but a 1999 study showed that 87 percent of "gifted" people were perfectionists—even then, though, only 30 percent of these gifted perfectionists were neurotic.

Although a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, neurotic perfectionism is different than straight-up OCD. Though an OCD sufferer has a compulsion that sometimes relieves an obsession, he or she knows that that behavior is “wrong” and irrational. The neurotic perfectionist believes the inverse: He thinks 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 over and over. I believe the line will get better, and it does, but what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on a single sentence? Thirty seconds, two minutes, an hour? Certainly not a couple of days.

And yet, though I know this to be true, once I’m locked in on it, a sentence isn’t just words and information, it's 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 both to support himself financially and express himself in an artistically laudable way. And it’s a struggle because it has to be. 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?

I've begun to think that I'd 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 51 percent increased risk of death 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, which is to say so slowly that the real, impulsive me needn’t be faced. Every mistake I make—which festers in my being, compounding my misery—goes unlearned in the belief that going backward is a waste of time. Why analyze something when by the count of ten it will no longer exist?

I should explain: Three or four times a day I go to the bathroom and, counting upward, 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 ten, I imagine that—for a few brief moments of unreality—everything is perfect. No sentence has been badly written, no bag of chips lies empty on my bed. There is only blank space.

Inevitably, though, life must fill this space, and with that realization—that the past I left behind is still there—I can only delude myself further until I think that my will is strong enough to beat it back, and 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 recognize, at the sight of a single flaw, the failure that is my life—I'm flesh and bone, average in every way.

Perfectionists' relationships suffer too—with children, family members, spouses. What I have 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 should be. So I criticize 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 lost me friends. In the last few years, I’ve twice cut off people I was close with in order to escape flaws that, though real, I focused on too much. I used people's flaws to absolve me of my responsibility as a friend to help them. Maintaining the pretense I was perfect was impossible with them around, screaming their imperfections—and mine—in my face. 

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 my becoming evermore academically average—until the age of 13, I was at the top of my class—and the support I needed, both from my parents and the school, wasn't given.

I needed my parents to confront that the shortcomings they'd bred in me—they passed on their sense of inferiority and 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—however mildly—away from the teachers who shamed me—however unintentionally—away from my real self. In actuality, I was a bog-average student who threw up during gym class and who, though not a permanent target for abuse, wasn't the respect-commanding figure he'd once been.

It's obvious that a lot of this—being a perfectionist and a writer—is a reaction against where I came from and my parents' belief that no one 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 aloud often, 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 is made toward success and, most importantly, happiness.

Perfectionism is treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, the method of finding the thoughts and actions that lead to problems and eradicating them. This requires the patient to endure the anxiety of confronting his flaws and then, over time, learning to accept them and find satisfaction in his growth. I suppose, then, this article is my attempt at that: the first step in a long, painful process that’ll see me going to therapy eventually, once I work up the courage

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 my will to be perfect was? 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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