I feel like I’ve been running like a hamster on a wheel. Chasing endlessly to find something that would prove my self-worth but no matter how many times I’ve achieved that, the feelings are often fleeting. I then berate myself, why am I not appreciating the accomplishments that I have? Why couldn’t I believe compliments I’ve received? Perfectionism, itself, is like a maze that never seems to end.
There are different ways to explain what is perfectionism, but generally, it is a personality trait where “a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high-performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” It also commonly linked with Imposter syndrome. There is no one way to experience perfectionism. Everyone may experience it differently as it can manifest in different ways – whether it is in an academic, social, physical environment or more. Paul Hewitt, Ph.D., a well-known researcher on perfectionism, says that perfectionism isn’t a way of thinking, but “it’s a way of being in the world.”
Perfectionism isn’t always a bad thing but it can also lead us on the path of an unfulfilled life.
Unbeknownst to me, I have been on the path of an unfulfilled life. I don’t know when perfectionism started but probably when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I failed to notice that there was a distinction of being self-critical or merely pushing myself (in a healthy way). I believed my fear of making failures and becoming defensive are only natural, not something that are causing me to feel unhappy with my life. I set (unrealistically) high standards for myself because that’s “how it supposed to be.” If I didn’t meet my own expectations, I become disappointed and ruminate what I did terribly. Nothing I’ve been doing seems good enough, but I thought a lot of people go through this anyways. I didn’t realize how it can impact my life in many areas (career, relationships, physical environment, etc.)
When did I finally see it? My partner and best friends often pointed out something that I never really realized: I just have too many fears that are holding me back. Too much shame. I’ve been told that I’ve been too hard on myself and act like I’m on the edge of my seat when I received criticisms. I first dismissed their observations but traveling long-term and having a travel blog were both starting to open my eyes gradually. I began to notice how I’ve been battling against my fears exhaustively. My loved ones were right: I’ve been striving unhealthy. It is an issue that’s affecting my life, including my own travel blog, that I can no longer ignore.
Creating film & written contents publicly were initially exciting when I started this blog. I have so many things to say, to share. I was fueled with anticipation, passion and –
until I start growing an audience. Shit, I mean, obviously that was expected. The reality of getting compliments and criticisms online, especially in person, my anxiety kicked in. It may be hard to believe for some people but I do sometimes become anxious when I get compliments.
Receiving compliments, from Instagram photos to travel videos, I can see the sincerity from them. They say I’m a good writer but am I a really good writer? Seeing other writers’ with better wording skills and grammar skills, I doubted my own. Practicing and facing (constructive) criticism are evidently some of the crucial processes to hone my writing skills and gain not only confidence but trust in my own abilities. But because I believed that I’m not a good writer, I’ve been allowing my fear controls me. I seldom practice on my blog, scared to start writing for a popular travel blogger (who requested for me to write a guest post), left more than 30 unpublished drafts (mostly unfinished) that mentioned at least 12-56 revisions – practically accumulated with dust. Yikes. I set a high unrealistic exception for myself, and I was trying to make my blog posts perfect. It had to look perfect or “good enough” in my own standards. I admit I haven’t posted a video in the last 3 weeks because of my fears (and depression).
While I am publishing a content, sometimes I feel like putting myself at risk. Am I writing that seems like an embarrassing fail? Or stupid ones that ultimately leave me a bad reputation? I’ve been avoiding to leave a space for failures (publicly actually). Being a perfectionist means that I constantly belittling myself and then I’d feel defeated. Then I’d self-sabotage or procrastinate, ah such lovely sidekicks for perfectionism.
People often tell me that progress is progress. But my own mind as a perfectionist, my meaning of progress differs than their own meaning of progress. How much this so-called progress of mine for one simple task (a video or a blog post) would take? Another 2 weeks? You got to be kidding me, that’s a called progress? I couldn’t help but to become focused on the results that haven’t even happen yet. The thought of how I take so long to do certain things, it blinds myself to understand what “making progress” truly means.
Trust me, I did try to meditate or relax, if that’s what you’re thinking. Yes, I’ve done a reading, hammocking, breathing and um, emotional eating. So far, mediation is only a temporary moment that eases my mind for a while. No, maybe for a bit. It’s hard because my fears are still there, creeping up inside my mind and the center of my chest which often become tightened. To be honest, I feel a bit conflicted as I say this about mediation because I graduated from Marriage & Family Therapy program but don’t forget – therapists are humans too.
As crazy as it sounds, I feel that people have great expectations of me. I couldn’t help to ruminate the consequences I get if I was to fail to make more great contents. As a people-pleaser, I fear that I cannot meet others’ expectations. Would it makes me seem inadequate if I happen to make some mistakes? Or if I didn’t meet their expectations? Sometimes making simple honest mistakes publicly (like using the wrong Vietnam flag for one of my videos), I dwelled on it for a while. Damn, why can’t I stop thinking about what others think?
“When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun and fear is the annoying back seat driver.” - Brene Brown
The obsession of what I’ve done wrong often overshadows all the greatest things that I’ve accomplished, even the little accomplishments. As Sharon Martin, LCSW said, I filter out the positives.
I let others’ opinions of me measure my own self-worth which is such immense pressure on me. I feel completely emotionally drained which often leads to frequent burnouts. I stared at the screen blankly, and I struggled with becoming productive. When I have nothing left in me, I feel a lot worse about myself which exacerbates my depression and anxiety.
And I’m TIRED. Tired of this life of a perfectionist (the traits that do not benefit me). Tired of running in an endless maze, because I feel like no matter what I do, I’m never satisfied with myself. It has been the clutter on my path.
I’ve been ready to make changes – but that’s easier said than done. Years of habit would not disappear within a day. And I am scared because changes can be scary (which one of the things that perfectionists are sometimes scared of, ha!). I’m okay for changes, but I am pretty scared that I’ll FAIL to make changes.
My progress now + Resources
To be completely honest with you, I just rewrote this very post over 10 times. I rewrote many paragraphs here.
I still have some fears but at least I’m trying make a progress. One of the signs of progress I’ve been making was accepting that I am not able to pose elegantly like these model-like travel Instagrammers. I’m learning to let go of the idea of what’s the perfect Instagram photos for people and need to share what’s perfect to ME. I’ve shared on Instagram about the struggles of this here and here.
There are other ways that I’ve been making progress that I want to share it with you. There are some resources that I’m still trying it out, but let me tell you this: just because some of these resources may work for me, it doesn’t mean it will work “perfectly” for you. We all have our own journey, and you’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that you are incapable to make changes. With suitable resources, you’ll find ways to make signs of progress. These are what I’m doing to work on my perfectionism:
I finally found a therapist a few months ago (it’s really difficult to find one as a Deaf person). I have no shame of seeing a therapist. Therapy isn’t for “crazy people” as the stigma claims it to be. It’s truly rewarding. During my therapy sessions, I explore my beliefs, learning to unlearn all the beliefs about my self-worth and the meaning of failure. With my therapist’s guidance, I’m practicing different steps, especially on self-compassion and self-acceptance. It certainly still isn’t a smooth ride but this is helping me to become the best version I’m already am.
I am currently reading The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem & Find Balance by Sharon Martin. I personally find it an amazing resource. It’s very easy to read and guide you to have a deeper understanding of perfectionism. There are many questions that are thought-provoking. I’m still working on this book. I can update my progress about this later.
I have many other books that I plan to read to change my beliefs about success, failures, shame, and fears (feel free to add more in the comment below!):
Learning from others
Instead of being jealous and become critical of my own writing after reading different books or blog posts, I’m practicing to shift my perspective. Not all writers are naturally gifted, and some writers worked hard to get where they are today. Their success does not measure how worthless I am. Their success does not mean that I have my own kind of success. I am also learning to recognize something else: their writing reminds me of why I love writing. Reading their stories sometimes gives me the feeling as if it is nurturing me with water. Watering my own seeds that I’ve been neglecting to nurture myself. Too poetic, isn’t it? This is an entirely new feeling that I have though. It’s not perfect yet, I do sometimes still find myself comparing every once in a while.
Talk to loved ones
Although many of my loved ones aren’t perfectionist, they know what is it like to be people-pleasers or struggling with their self-worth. With this, I can confide my feelings with them, even the ones that they cannot really relate. I’m also truly grateful that they see I’m way beyond more than just my perfectionist traits – perhaps they even know me even better than I do myself. They tell me how much potential I have. I’m grateful for their faith in me when I didn’t have any in myself. Talking to loved ones really may not solve the struggles for you but it gives you a sense of relief off your chest.
Perfectionism, as I’m still learning about it, is not one of the worse things to have. There are some traits as a perfectionist that are beneficial and some that can be adjusted to have a better fulfilling life. The problem is that the way I perceive failures and how I wanted to let others measure my self-worth; it has been getting in my way of living my life to the fullest. I also need to learn how to handle and face my fears effectively. Some of the fears that I have are often not even the real truths, my truths. Fear can be a motivator for me but to make me feel trapped on my own path that I want to take? Nuh uh. I’m still on this journey. One day, I’ll be able to breathe when I make mistakes. The more I keep doing this, the more comfortable I’ll be to find the courage to try new things. Without a doubt, I’ll be out of the “endless” maze.
Here are more resources (including articles) relating to perfectionism and few general ones as well.
- On Therapy For Black Girls, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford did a podcast about perfectionism. You can find it here. I have not listened nor have the affiliation with Therapy For Black Girls. It seems that transcription is not included but perhaps you can request for one by contacting her.
- A Facebook group called, Perfectionism Project Community, is a space for perfectionists to talk about their struggles and tips. A group aims to empower one another as perfectionists. You can find it here. I’ve not participated in this group yet, so you can see whether it works for you.
- To seek out a community, you can also read different forums about perfectionism on Reddit. People share their experiences, tips, and resources. You don’t necessarily need an account to read the forums. If you like to participate in these discussions, you have a choice to make your account anonymous too! You can find it here.
- Melanin & Mental Health™ (who are providing mental health services for Black & Latinx/Hispanic communities) also discussed perfectionism via a podcast and YouTube video on their website. You can find it here. It only included automatic English captions, so Closed Captioning may have some errors on it. If you are looking for a culturally competent clinician, you can use their search feature to find a local therapist!
- Sam Louie is a licensed Asian psychotherapist who addressed about Asian Shame and perfectionism. Not only he is a psychotherapist but a speaker, writer, and trainer. He wrote a brief article on Psychology Today, you can read here. It seems he didn’t often address specifically about perfectionism but mentioned that Asian Shame can lead to perfectionism. You can read more of his blog here. I, unfortunately, can’t seem to find more resources relating for perfectionism (other than researches) for Asian and Pacific Islanders communities. But if you are looking for general mental health resources, you can check out MannMukti, NAAPIMHA, I AM SHAKTI, and Facebook groups here: Subtle Asian mental health & Asian Mental Health Advocates Unite!
- If you are Muslim, read Permission for imperfection article by The Mindful Muslim (based in London, England). It addressed about shame and self-love as well. On their website, you can also find additional resources, blog posts and look out for the events they plan to host on their website! For general mental health resources, check out Muslim Wellness Foundation, The Institute of Muslim Mental Health, and Mental Health 4 Muslims.
- For LGBTQ+, you can read articles about perfectionism here – but it focused on Gay community. For general mental health resources: The Trevor Project.
What is your biggest struggle when pursuing your dreams?
Are you a perfectionist? What’s your journey is like for you?