Recovering From Perfectionism: An Addict's Diary

Ioana Andrei

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My name is Ioana and I am a perfectionist.

I am working hard not to be, but I accept that there may always be a grain of it left at the bottom of the jar.

The jar is my soul.

Nice to meet you.

I won’t go into how perfectionism affects my life just yet. I might freak out and not be able to finish this piece.

My fellow perfectionists will taste the sweet irony and, to the rest, I say — count your blessings.

First, a history of perfectionist tendencies.

1999

I am in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Time — close to midnight.

I am 5 years old and learning how to read.

It’s day 3 since the project began with a magnetic letter board.

I’ve passed all of my grandmother’s spelling exercises, bar one.

I’ve been working on said bar one for a few hours.

One word. The word RIVER, as it happens. Written on a bottle of mineral water.

I can’t read the word RIVER off a bottle of mineral water and my grandmother is not impressed by my tears and wails.

I can’t go to bed "until I read it correctly," she says.

2002

I am in my study at home.

I have my own study, because I am a serious second-grade student with serious homework to do.

A few weeks ago I came in first in a Maths contest in my school, to everyone’s surprise.

But not to my own — I mean, I’ve been getting As ever since I started this whole school business, so what are you all bulging your eyes at me for?

As the term is coming to a close, it transpires that I’ve got more Bs than As in my Romanian Language class.

If I don’t get an A on the next test, my overall grade for the subject will be a B.

I am "not a B student," my mother says.

Stop playing on the computer.

Stop drawing.

Spend more hours practicing for that test.

"But I don’t like the Romanian class."

No buts.

2009

High school. Finally. Getting a bit closer to adulthood, freedom, making my own rules.

We’re growing up, it’s exciting. Hormones buzzing around, trying to pollinate.

The kids from middle school appear to have found more interesting things to do than to bully me on a daily basis.

A new kid in our class.

I will be nice to him, he’s new. He asks questions about the teachers and the classes.

Surprisingly, he takes an interest in my physical appearance.

I am informed I do not possess appropriately large breasts.

Nor does the rest of my body appeal to him, either.

In fact, he is of the opinion that no other male peer will care to engage in physical intimacy with me, ever.

Opinion which is supported by evidence, as I currently do not have a romantic partner.

I thank him for his deliberation and try to bury the memories of being sexually assaulted a year prior.

2011

My father is driving and I am in the passenger seat. It’s summer.

Isn’t this nice. For once, we are having a casual conversation.

Suddenly, I am reminded that I’m soon entering my final year of high school.

That what I choose to study afterward "will determine the rest of my life".

That it needs to be relevant, future-proof, and something I can be the best at.

Do I know what I wish to study?

Not yet.

Well, I have until the end of the summer to find out.

I think back to my conversation with him a few weeks ago. I was advised that, should I choose to pursue my desire to act, I should expect little support or reward as a result of this action.

Dad?

"I’ve decided to study Business Management."

2020

It’s January 1st.

I’ve barely slept. Even with these sleeping pills, I can’t seem to get more than 5 hours of non-interrupted sleep.

But that’s normal, they say, with post-concussion syndrome.

The first few weeks after a concussion, you sleep loads. Then, you could struggle to sleep for months.

I’ve learned to adapt. Sleep, headaches, fatigue, screens that are too bright.

Dropping all the proverbial balls I was juggling made me appreciate the little things.

Like brushing my teeth.

I’ve never liked brushing my teeth.

Who am I kidding? I’m not adapting to this, I’m forced to live it.

Who am I if I don’t work and create things?
What will my future look like if I can’t solve problems like I used to?
How will I achieve deadlines if I can’t predict when I get brain fog?

Dad thinks I may suffer from anxiety and fear of failure.

Perfectionism is like a leech.

It glues its belly onto the voices you know all too well. The ones that told you:

"Do better!"
"Make me proud!"
"That’s ugly!"

So those voices stay with you. As the leech feeds off them, it becomes bigger.

But even as it grows, you don’t see it. It blends in.

The voices change pitch and frequency and they begin to sound more familiar.

They begin to sound like that thing you say in meetings,

"For our market share to grow, we must implement new systems that have superior agility and efficiency to our competitors."

They begin to dictate bullet points in your CV:

  • bias for action
  • result-oriented
  • growth mindset

They begin to sound like you.

Don’t they?

We internalize the feedback we get from our environment, even when that feedback emerges from shame, inadequacy, misjudgment, abuse, and unkindness.

We internalize other people’s struggle with self-worth and start to believe that we deserve what we get when it’s bad, and we don’t deserve what we get when it’s great.

We internalize other people’s success when we’re taught to compete for a living. As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way,

“We don’t compare our student films to George Lucas’s student films. Instead, we compare them to Star Wars.” - Julia Cameron

Perfectionism halts the first step.

It discourages the jump from beginner to intermediate.

It interrupts the marathon with 100 meters to go.

Because some troubled kid sent his hate mail via Asshole Airwaves.

I struggle to finish things.

Stories, applications, piano sheets, social projects.

I conflate marginal progress with output. If I can’t perfect something in one go, I choose no go.

Sometimes.

Other times, I say, oh for Pete’s sake, just get it out.

Just get it out.

Get it out.

Now.

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