Recently I have been applying for jobs and made it to a third-round interview with a potential employer. The question came that always does: “What is your biggest flaw?” Every time I respond, “My perfectionism.”
Many times, this is met with that look of, “Oh great. Another person who thinks so highly of themselves, they can’t give a real answer to the question.” But, my perfectionism has truly been my greatest downfall in my life. I am my own worst enemy, and I have hurt myself more than anyone else has hurt me. It also intersects with so many other issues in my life, only to make the issue worse.
You see, most people don’t know the full spectrum of perfectionism. I was tested for learning disabilities in high school, and I scored off the charts on perfectionism. The psychiatrist came in and revealed they had never seen scores that high in all their practice. My perfectionism was crippling, and it led to years of long battles with waxing and waning depression that was entirely dependent on how well I perceived my performance.
My perfectionist tendencies cause me to become paralyzed before starting anything I want so badly to do because I have to be perfect from the start. I will spend hours upon hours researching anything and everything, partly because I have many interests and love learning, but also because I need to be perfect in it and not fail. I need to know it so well I cannot fail. It was not until college that I realized I actually learn so much more in my failures than I do in my successes.
Recently, my perfectionism has been creeping in with my passion for photography. For the past two years, I have been trying off and on to start a photography business, but I continually doubt my skills and continually feel I need to improve and take more classes before I even begin to start taking photos of other people. Whenever my husband encourages me to take the plunge, I always have some excuse. Some are valid, but some I know I already have the skills. The issue is, I simply don’t believe in myself or my abilities. My perfectionism causes this persistent need to be better without the practice and without the possibility of failing. So, instead of jumping into the deep end, I stay in the shallow end, paralyzed and altogether overwhelmed.
My perfectionism has played out in many confrontations from my husband. Anytime he tries to point out something hurtful I have done, I immediately crumble, apologize profusely and believe I am a complete failure. Instead of acknowledging his concerns and asking him what he needs from me, the focus turns to him comforting me so I won’t believe I am so awful. I absolutely hate that I do that, and I have difficulty accepting my flaws with grace. But, as I become more and more aware of my perfectionistic tendencies and the harm it causes, I am able to recognize things are not black and white, or all or nothing. I am human after all, and I should allow myself the space to be one.
My perfectionism locks me in the smallest of boxes, not allowing me any room to be human, fail, or make mistakes. It is entirely exhausting and makes it difficult for me to change, improve or accept myself for who I am and where I am at.
My perfectionism encouraged and enabled an 11-year battle with eating disorders. Perfectionism and anorexia nervosa tag-teamed, jumping at every possibility to keep me trapped and obedient. At some point, I was in so much pain, the façade of comfort my eating disorder and perfectionism portrayed was lifted. I saw how these things were hurting myself and others.
My perfectionism embraces black and white thinking. When I explained my perfectionism in my job interview, I mentioned how my productivity can become hindered if I feel I have not met an impossible standard I set for myself. I cannot rest if I do not meet and exceed my expectations. If I don’t, then I see all my efforts as a failure instead of how much I learned and the experience I gained during the process. It’s all or nothing, and it is entirely unhealthy.
College was the biggest punch in the gut I needed with this area of my life. My first semester I failed 3 classes, barely passed one and got an A in another. My usual ways of studying were no longer working, yet I was constantly studying. Somehow, I managed to get it somewhat together for that spring semester, but my perspective did not change until my junior year. I went to class, read my books, reviewed a little before exams and started to believe I did my best, that I knew all I was going to know for the test. And, I started getting all As with a simple shift in thought and the way I talked to myself.
I find it fascinating that even though I discovered this power of searching for the gray area and thinking positively, I still struggle to this day with perfectionistic tendencies. A big part of my eating disorder recovery was addressing my perfectionism with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), but it is my perfectionism more than my eating disorder that catches me off-guard and sometimes sends me into a tailspin.
Much like eating disorders, I feel my perfectionism will be a lifelong battle of being aware and using healthy coping strategies to manage it. Despite my fears, anxieties and doubts my perfectionism produces, I am taking the plunge and engaging in activities I have always wanted to do. I have a new voice that challenges my perfectionistic voice, and gradually my perfectionistic voice becomes quieter. Though this will likely always be my biggest flaw, I am becoming more and more aware every day, and being aware is half the battle.