Inside the mind of a perfectionist

Teenage girl feeling depressed in the park

— Written by Hayley Payne. Originally published in Getamungstit (August 2016)

Nothing you do will ever be good enough. This is the message that I used to tell myself every single day. I didn’t hate myself or my life, but I was a perfectionist. People always joke about the term perfectionist. They act like it is no big deal, like it is a joke or an ideal state of mind to work towards. But for the thousands of people suffering from being a perfectionist every day, it isn’t really a joke at all.

For me, it came about gradually. I started with decent grades at university with minimal effort, but when I nabbed my first elusive HD at the end of my second semester everything changed. From that point on nothing short of 85 on an assessment was good enough. My family and friends would praise my efforts and I would smile along. Secretly I would be dying inside, thinking that I could have done better.

When I would look at university news and see all of the amazing things other students were doing I was jealous and wondered why I couldn’t be like them. It was so crippling I wouldn’t even consider my own accomplishments as something to be proud of because nothing I did could ever be that incredible. You see, I thought that I was doing myself a favour by repeating the mantra “nothing you ever do will be enough” over and over in my head. I thought that it would make me strive higher and higher and work harder and harder to reach that end goal.

Perfectionists come in all different shapes, sizes, personalities and life goals. I wasn’t a perfectionist who put things off, fearing that I couldn’t complete them to my incredibly high standards. Instead, I started assessments ridiculously early. I would scrutinise every word, wondering why I couldn’t make it as fantastic as I wanted it to be. I’d become so angry at myself when I didn’t get a HD on an assessment and then spend hours in a dreadful mood. I was even that person who would completely overtake a group project to ensure that we received the mark I wanted. A lot of the time people were more than happy for me to do the majority of the work, but it really wasn’t fair on them or myself.

Eventually, late last year it all got too much. I suffered a major burn out in the form of a panic attack. This was not something I had experienced before and it was certainly not something that I wanted to experience again. I started to rid myself of my perfectionist ways by telling those closest to me that something was wrong. I then started to work on changing my attitude about my life. Instead of thinking that nothing I did would ever be good enough, I starting thinking that I could always improve on the work I had done.

Simple changes to my thinking were key for me in changing my attitude and mindset. I am slowly moving away from thinking like a perfectionist. Now when I receive a good mark or accomplish something I have worked hard towards I imagine that it was a friend or family member who achieved that accomplishment. It really helps me to put in perspective how much my hard work has paid off and that I should be proud of what I have achieved.

Could you be a perfectionist?

Classic symptoms of a perfectionist include:

  • Thinking that nothing you achieve will ever be enough, there is always a higher accomplishment or mark to gain.
  • Your self-worth is based purely on your success and achievements.
  • You think that other people value you based purely on your success and achievements.
  • You are incredibly competitive and feel jealous at the success of others.
  • You are secretly judgemental of people who don’t strive for their best.
  • You can never feel accomplished. For example, you never feel like that essay you wrote is finished or that it will ever be good enough.

If you related with any of the above, you may very well be a perfectionist. This is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but can be quite crippling to your self-worth. Maybe you know someone who has these traits and has joked about them being a perfectionist before. Many people don’t realise how crippling and dark the world of perfectionism can be. Unfortunately, for those of who don’t seek help or attempt to change their attitude towards their achievements and accomplishments, it can lead to anxiety and even depression.

So the next time you accomplish something, give yourself a pat on the back and take a moment to acknowledge the hard work that got you there. If you know somebody who is a perfectionist, talk to them about how they feel and encourage them to seek help if needed.