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What My Therapist Said That Made Me Challenge My Perfectionism

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I have been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. Not just diligent and hardworking, but overachieving to a fault… or at least to my own detriment. In school, it wasn’t enough to get an A, I wanted an A+. In ballet, I’d practice my pirouettes over and over and over again until my feet bled from blisters on my toes. In work for a corporate job, I would be on call every holiday and answer every request any time of day with a yes. It didn’t matter how tired I was, what else I had going on, or if I was sick. Not doing and not producing wasn’t an option in my mind. My self-worth and identity depended on what I perceived to be my reliability.

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But, what happens when you can’t live up to your own impossible standards? If your perfectionism stems from deep-rooted insecurities that grew out of a traumatic childhood, any perceived flaw, slight, criticism, conflict, or failure becomes soul crushing. The amount of self-flagellation and rumination that ensues going over and over and over what I did wrong and how I could have done better is not just exhausting, but it can actually cause me physical illness because my anxiety gets so debilitating.

This perfectionism even extends to things that seem to have nothing to do with me. I often find ways of blaming myself for things that happen to others, taking on responsibility when it doesn’t belong to me. As I have said to my therapist, “In my brain, I’m exceptional, superhuman… but not the good kind.” It would be funny if it didn’t come at a huge price by way of my mental and physical health.

So, when my therapist said the other day she does a B+ at a certain task and that’s just fine with her because she has to prioritize her own mental health — my mind blew up. We tend to put our therapists on pedestals and think they are, well, perfect. But, they are just as human as you and I and how they handle disappointment, upset, failure, or mistakes can be powerfully instructive for their clients, especially those like me whose trauma manifests in perfectionism.

Having her offer an apology for a misstep or show remorse for something, acknowledging how it may have hurt me or someone else is beyond refreshing. After having an abusive therapist who would always blame me for mishearing her or somehow not handling things well enough (gaslighting), basically reinforcing how my flaws or imperfections are a statement about my worth — actually having a meaningful rupture and repair with my now therapist feels empowering.

Make no mistake, the therapeutic relationship is above all else, instructional. It’s a place to practice new skills and to work through how that feels. Seeing human fallibility embraced with dignity, grace, and self-compassion is something my inner perfectionist needs desperately to see. It was a brief moment in years of therapy that has had a truly impactful influence on how I perceive myself and my own humanity.

Maybe, just maybe, I too can learn to operate at less than 100% all the time. Maybe I can make some space for my fallibility and not feel so much shame if I cannot be as productive or effective or whatever other unachievable standard I impose upon myself all the time. Perhaps, respecting my own “normalcy” as good enough is not only possible, but instrumental in better managing my mental health. I’m not particularly great at listening to my own body for cues as to when I need to slow down or stop. I think giving myself the permission to not be perfect the way I was able to witness my therapist do for herself will enable me to more mindfully attend to myself.

In the end, nobody will ask to see my list of successes, GPA, or bank account as a way of celebrating the value of my life. They will reflect upon how I treated others, what kind of friend I was, and how I showed up in the world in both good times and bad. A B+ may, in fact, be more than good enough.

Getty image by KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: January 8, 2022
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