on perfectionism

Every woman I know grew up in the shadow of a female cultural ideal that seemed both achievable and totally impossible. Tina Fey and Gillian Flynn have articulated it better than I can, but it goes something like this: you should have the body of a Kardashian, the brain of a nuclear scientist, and the personality of a Hawaiian surfer. You should be beautiful but low-maintenance, loving but not needy, accomplished but non-threatening, opinionated but not annoying. When you grow up aspiring to this ideal and getting praised when you approach it, you get seduced into believing that 1) it’s possible to achieve the ideal and 2) not adhering to it is your failure + all bad things that happen to you are a direct result of that. Basically, it’s always your fault for not trying hard enough.

Absorbing these messages turns you into a perfectionist. You start internalizing every form of rejection. Nothing can be unrelated to you because everything bad that happens is a direct response to you not being good enough. Breakup? Too needy. Bad grade? Too lazy. Romantic rejection? You’re disgusting and you should lose weight. People who are perfectionists overemphasize their own importance and obsess over their failures. They haven’t achieved healthy separation between themselves and the world around them.

A non-perfectionist, when receiving negative feedback, tends to parse it in one of two ways:

1) I get negative feedback -> it’s not from a reliable source, so I don’t take it seriously
2) I get negative feedback -> it’s correct and I figure out how to improve

A perfectionist, on the other hand:

I get negative feedback -> I feel horrible and worthless

The only way they can live with negative feedback is by completely devaluing the person who’s giving it:

This person is a deranged loser. How dare they criticize me?

Being a perfectionist doesn’t actually make you lovable. Instead, it turns you into an annoying control freak. I’m sure we’ve all seen people who are very online/semi-famous/famous and cannot handle criticism. They constantly feel the need to correct or engage with every negative comment made about them, which then leads to more negative comments. These are perfectionists who need to maintain total control over their image: they loathe the idea that someone could see them differently from how they see themselves. The inaccurate perception must be fixed. Of course, this is a Sisyphean task.

You’ll never make everyone like you. But perversely, you’ll make fewer people like you if you try to make everyone like you.

Wanting to improve is separate from perfectionism. One is centered around accepting who you are, and wanting to put more effort and time into the things you love. The other is centered around hating yourself for not meeting a meaningless ideal.

A lot of high-achieving, neurotic people will try to tell you that being a perfectionist is the only path to improvement. This is because they loathe themselves and are convinced that self-loathing is the only valid source of motivation. The secret I wish I’d discovered earlier is that there are lots of very driven people who like themselves and don’t live in constant self-torment.

Are you a perfectionist? A list:

  1. You focus too much on being wanted/desirable which makes it impossible for you to be your actual self. People can sense that you’re inauthentic and it puts them off

  2. You over-fixate on negative feedback and analyze every date/situationship that doesn’t work out, looking for what you did wrong

  3. You’re accommodating because you want to be loved, but this clashes with your actual long-suppressed needs so you end up resenting yourself & your partner

  4. You externalize everything—this didn’t work because I’m not pretty enough, successful enough, chill enough—but refuse to believe the problem is with your choices and lack of self-knowledge

  5. You live in the hypothetical. You’re so fixated on the perfect idea of the thing that you can’t relax even when you actually have it.

  6. You can’t differentiate between wanting to be better and overfixating on everything you consider imperfect

  7. You’re contemptuous of everyone who doesn’t have high standards (read: your standards), wondering how they can bear to live the way they do

  8. You think the basic problem with yourself is that you don’t have enough self-control. You’re trying hard, but you should be trying way harder. If you had enough control over yourself to stop fucking up, your life would improve.

  9. You hate rejection. Whenever you’re rejected you feel an intense wave of disgust and self-loathing and vow to never be so pathetic or vulnerable again.

If you, uh, really relate to this list, I think it’s important to remember that not everything in the world is a referendum on your worthiness. People do things for a lot of reasons and most of them have nothing to do with you.

For example: if someone doesn’t respond to your message, it’s usually not because they hate you. The interesting thing there is not how they feel about you, but rather why you need constant validation that you’re lovable. Your mind turns a very ambiguous situation—they could be busy, sick, stressed out about work, socially overwhelmed, whatever—into a very specific situation that is centered around you: this person hates me.

This is an exhausting way to operate. I’ve lived like this, and I have so much more space to breathe now that I’ve given it up. It turns out that it’s actually way easier to fix your problems when you like and accept yourself.

Giving yourself permission to get it wrong means you have more patience for finding the right thing. Perfectionism motivates you to always choose the thing that seems the most prestigious—you never give yourself any slack to fail, even though slack is the most important thing in the world if you’re actually trying to do something original (more on this later).

Perfectionism makes you care about what looks good, not what feels good. It makes you punish yourself for any perceived faults. You take pride in caring so much, but you don’t realize that you’re optimizing for all the wrong things. You don’t realize that you’re myopic and self-obsessed and cruel. You don’t believe that there are people in the world who aren’t judgmental and resentful behind a veneer of chillness. You don’t realize that the thing you’re clutching like a life raft is the thing that’s pulling you into the water. You don’t realize that if you let go, you could maybe learn to swim.