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You cannot be a perfectionist and be happy

I used to be a perfectionist. I would spend hours and hours getting something “right”, making sure that it was done to the very best of my abilities, that I had thought through every single angle and approach, either endorsing or ditching each one, and that I had every last scrap of evidence in support of my case. It was a completely exhausting process, and one which stressed me (and those around me) out big time. But, it was always worth it, I reasoned, because when I had finished with it, it was perfect. And perfect was great, right?

Only my academic life escaped this perfectionism – for some reason, I didn’t really care how I did at school or university, much to the dismay of my father. In all other aspects of my life, however, perfectionism reigned. I HAD to be the perfect daughter, granddaughter, friend, girlfriend, wife, employee, marketer, researcher – whatever my role, I had to be perfect in it.

You see, I grew up in a household that didn’t tolerate failure – being right and perfectionism were the only options. I got away with my lack of perfectionism around my school work only because I was judged to be pretty perfect in other ways. Lucky me. Being right and perfectionism were also sold as two of the key attributes of being successful. Which, of course, we were expected to be. The family formula was perfectionism ==> success ==> acclaim ==> happiness.

So, everything had to be perfect. Then I would be, too.

And, if I was perfect, I would live happily ever after. The End.

Except that I didn’t.

I didn’t live happily ever after. I was miserable.

The family formula was wrong. Perfectionism ≠≠> success ≠≠> acclaim ≠≠> happiness.

Even before realizing I was miserable, I had noticed a few flaws in the whole being-a-perfectionist thing. Being stressed out was one – it just didn’t feel good. Being irritable was another – snapping at other people wasn’t me. And then there was the ulcerative colitis, which descended on me in my late 30s. There’s nothing quite like losing control of your bowels to make you take a long, hard look at how you’ve been living.

After taking stock of everything, I had to acknowledge quite a few things.

  1. That I wasn’t actually Superwoman. That I couldn’t take on all of my problems and everyone else’s, too.
  2. That I couldn’t work endless hours at something I didn’t enjoy.
  3. That life wasn’t one big competition. That I didn’t have to be better than, or more perfect than, or more right than anyone else to be of worth.
  4. That being a perfectionist was a mask I wore to avoid facing other realities in my life, mostly fears. The perfectionist in me came from my inner critic.
  5. That I couldn’t be right all the time (i.e. perfect) AND happy.

Those last two points were biggies. They demanded nothing less than a complete overhaul of how I’d been living. Sure, I needed to make life changes in order to address the other points fully, but they were relatively small in comparison what I had to do to in order to resolve the last two.

So I devoted the next 15 years to making these life changes, and now I’m doing much better. I am no longer miserable, I’m happy – and enjoying whatever life throws at me. Whenever I feel myself defaulting to that perfectionist type, which I do from time to time, I stop, acknowledge it, and change what I’m doing.

Perfectionism makes you competitive, anxious and unhappy. This is not what life is about. The parts of your life that are within your control are meant to be fun.

Make whatever life changes you need to in order to be happy. It will take a lot of work, but, believe me, you’re worth it.

And they all lived happily ever after. The End.


Sarah Blick is a very tall, dog-loving, morning person. She loves to be in the great outdoors, to write, to eat well, to be active and healthy, to make her own household and personal care products, and to listen to indie music. She’s an ENFP (Myers-Briggs) and a Rockstar (Fascination Advantage).