How Ditching Perfectionism Improved My Mental Health

I recently went back home to visit family and see some friends I have not seen in several months. I am fortunate to come from a family who is extremely loving, supporting and encouraging, so anytime I visit I feel refreshed and rejuvenated. And I always receive the best life advice anytime I see them.

I met with a close friend who is like family to me. We spent hours talking and catching up, sharing what we are currently going through in life. I talked about how I am finally at a place where I am happy and at peace with my life and the way I am living, but I also discussed my perfectionism and how debilitating it can be at times. It was then that my friend mentioned something I never considered: maybe my perfectionism is an extension of the way I view my personal flaws — that I need to fix everything about myself instead of accepting myself as I am and being happy with who I have become, flaws and all.

This comment was like super glue on my fingers. It was there, and it was impossible not to acknowledge. I realized for the past five years, I have been practically begging people to tell me my flaws so I can fix them and “perfect” myself for them. I will even ask my husband what he thinks I need to work on to become a “better version” of myself. I never took into consideration that maybe my perfectionism was driving this “need,” and maybe it was not as healthy or noble as I had once believed.

I thought there was something noble about continually refining myself — fixing things about myself I, or others, may not like. But essentially what I was doing was merely pleasing my perfectionism and fueling my people pleasing tendencies. If I am happy with myself and living life in a healthy way with a healthy outlook, why should my flaws continue to hold so much value? Is there more nobility in acknowledging my flaws instead of ruminating and embarking on a grand quest to change? Can I simply accept myself and live life?

Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe in seeking help for mental illness or utilizing therapy whenever we are struggling or need help navigating a difficult time, but if we have worked through those issues and consistently use healthy coping strategies, then is there a point when self-refinement becomes an unhealthy obsession that fuels underlying perfectionism? Because I had hit that point. 

My self-refinement was no longer about becoming healthier for myself, but became about asking others what they saw that I didn’t so I could fix something that may or may not be there. Doing that opens the door for potentially losing myself and no longer being my authentic self. No one knows you as well as you know yourself. Other people see only the parts of you that you reveal to them. They only have one piece of the entire picture, but you have access to the entire scene.

Throughout the treatment of my eating disorders, depression and anxiety, all of my therapists told me their goal was to get me to a point where I am healthy and able to function on my own without their help. They said that their door would always be open, but they wanted me to become confident in myself. How empowering is that? Knowing I had support walking alongside me to help me grow and be the healthy person I wanted to be meant everything to me during my recovery. I know my therapists would be celebrating who I have become and how I live my life today.

Sometimes, I have this urge to go back to therapy because I want to navigate it “perfectly,” even though I know I am capable of navigating my way through it. This has caused me to delay confrontations I need to have because I am scared of doing it wrong. Or, I keep thinking a therapist will have some insight I don’t already have and they can point something out I need to work on within myself.

I realize that my perfectionism and eating disorders programmed my mind to constantly evaluate myself, my body and my conversations, and pinpoint every single flaw or mistake. This does not happen all of the time anymore, but it still sneaks up on me. Even during my eating disorder recovery, my therapist explained how my perfectionism was commonplace — they called this the “star patient.”  At first, I was elated to hear this. I did all my homework from sessions, I did not engage in eating disorder behaviors and I made every goal we had set. My therapist pointed out how this was sometimes unhealthy because my perfectionism and eating disorder were tied into this way of thinking. I wasn’t allowing myself any room for mistakes and it was clear I needed to address my inability to allow myself to be human.

This brings us to today. My conversation with my family friend was exactly what I needed to hear. It caused me to stop and think about how far I have come in my recovery, how healthy I am today and how much I love the person I have become. I no longer feel like a slave to my disorders and I am becoming more and more OK with myself when I make a mistake. Instead, I learn from my mistakes, take notes for the future, make amends if needed and continue to move forward. I recognize that I am not perfect, and that is perfectly OK.

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Thinkstock photo via ARTEM VARNITSIN

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