When I was in elementary school, I would tear pages out of my notebook to rewrite them if I had made even the slightest mistake. If even one letter did not look right to me, I would need to start over. There was no question, no other option, and though I understand how silly it seems, this compulsion isn’t entirely gone now that I’m an adult. I have bins full of empty notebooks and journals and sketchbooks that I’m too afraid to scar with marks. What if I make a mistake? What if I have to tear a page out of my journal, and the journal is no longer perfect and pristine?
In the past four years, I’ve accomplished a lot in my life that I thought would take a lot longer: marriage, a college degree, a competitive position in my career, a house, a promotion. These are things that are objectively good and praised in our society, and they’re things that I’m proud to have accomplished. I am grateful for the opportunities and support that I’ve had in achieving them.
That’s why it has been so hard to admit to myself that I am depressed, that the way I feel is so much more than seasonal affective disorder. Outside looking in, my life is perfect, and I have no reason to be unhappy. I know this, so I denied there was a problem. It was easier to avoid voicing it to others if I didn't believe it, myself.
I’ve recently needed to come to terms with it due to some personal issues I’m not quite ready to talk about, and like those struggles, I’ve realized my depression is a symptom of a deeper problem. And that problem is perfectionism.
I don’t mean that my problem is that I try very hard to excel at what I do, or that I hold myself to high standards. It’s that I hold myself to impossible standards and that I tie my worth to meeting them. Only when I am perfect will people value me. Only when I find the perfect combination of diet, exercise, work ethic, and hobbies— and execute them flawlessly, every day— will I be worthy of love and receive it.
This desire to be perfect permeates everything I do. It is both crippling and exhausting.
- I don't start new hobbies because if I decide I don’t like them after all, I fear I will look like someone that’s unable to stick to anything.
- I procrastinate on projects because I am afraid that my work will never match my internal expectations, or that they will be too challenging for me to succeed.
- I repress my negative, honest emotions because I fear that I will look irrational or petty, or even worse, a bitch.
- I don’t handle criticism well because it reinforces the voice in my head that says, ‘No one will love you if you are flawed’ and confirms that people don’t like the things I don’t like about myself, either.
- Life is very black-and-white. There is only ‘success’ and ‘failure,’ and failure is shameful. More than that, it is something that will destroy me.
I masked these issues by obsessing over a quest for personal growth, by consuming health and lifestyle blogs that promise the outline to limitless health and happiness. Even after reading things like, ‘embrace your flaws!’ I would think— ‘yes, yes, if I do this, I will finally be perfect!’
Missing the point, much?
It’s not personal growth or self-improvement if I am doing it for external validation of my worth; if the goal is to be perfect instead of mostly happy.
Fuck perfect and pristine.
Fuck the perfectly staged Instagram photos and YouTube videos and Pinterest boards and the blogs that promise you things that only you can create for yourself. I want honesty, authenticity, and messes. I want the dark and the light. I want the dings and the bruises that mean I’ve challenged myself, win or lose.
I want the freedom of being able to do what I want, when I want, without fear that those decisions will make me worthless. Recognizing that my perfectionism has blocked that freedom for a long time, causing a cascade of other issues that have contributed to my unhappiness, has been a weight off my chest.
Now the real work can begin.