This Is The Truth About What Perfectionism Really Is

A young woman sits at a table in a cafe with decorated frosted windows Official / Unsplash

I have a pretty big flaw (okay a lot of them, but let’s focus on just one today). I’m a perfectionist. I know that sounds like one of those interview questions where you’re like *cue fake voice* “My biggest flaw? Oh, I’m such a perfectionist sometimes it takes me a bit longer to complete a task.” Smile and tilt your head.

The thing is, it’s not like that and it’s not cute. I’m a perfectionist in ways that can be unhealthy and it goes pretty far back. I remember in high school, insisting my cheer squad wash their SHOES before each game and I would inspect them each time. I cleaned mine with a toothbrush. Not normal or healthy.

I always thought I got it from my mother. She was and still is very much a perfectionist which I always loved and appreciated. For example, every single time we’d leave the house, she would stop and pick any little bits of debris off of the outside front door mat so it looked perfect. I wore my perfection like a badge of honor. Then recently I was listening to a Podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and she said something that literally stopped me in my tracks:

“Perfection is just fear in good shoes.” 

I never thought about my quest for perfection as being related to fear and suddenly it made so much sense. I can tell you exactly when it started. Age 14. In short, between 8th and 9th grade I moved from a big city to a small town, lost a bunch of baby weight, got contacts (goodbye glasses), my braces came off, and I joined the cheerleading squad. Overnight I went from a nobody to a somebody. I was scared to death I would screw it up if I didn’t stay 100% on my game. Hello perfection.

In high school, I was afraid I wouldn’t be popular if I wasn’t perfect. I was afraid I wouldn’t have my parents’ approval if I wasn’t getting perfect grades and working 40 hours per week while going to school full time. That moved into adulthood where I was afraid a man wouldn’t want to date me if my apartment wasn’t decorated perfectly and if I didn’t look perfect. In my 20’s, I was afraid I would lose my job if I wasn’t perfect in all things at work. That caused me to go into debt buying fancy work clothes, spend insane hours at the office, and cry over stupid work things. It all comes back to fear of rejection in some way.

So what does this mean? It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop cleaning my house, caring about my work or appearance. What it does mean is I’m going to continually remind myself that I won’t be rejected by the people I love if I’m not perfect. Constant perfection is annoying and feels very sanitized and inauthentic. 

This isn’t only about perfection. It’s about overexpressing a part of yourself out of fear of rejection. Is there an area in your life where you do something not because you genuinely want to, but because you’re afraid you’ll be rejected if you don’t?

Maybe you drink too much because you’re afraid you’ll be rejected by your friends if you can’t hang? Maybe you dress your kids in clothes you can’t afford because you’re afraid you’ll be rejected by the other moms if you don’t keep up appearances? Maybe you wear a full face of makeup to the gym at 7 a.m. because you’re afraid you’ll be rejected for not looking like a million bucks?

Let’s agree together to do a gut check when we do something that feels a bit inauthentic and ask ourselves why we’re doing it. I call it “the why behind the what.” Like most things in life, it’s not about one big sea change, but tiny edits along the way that lead to a more aligned way of living. Do anything you want. But do it because you truly want to. Not out of fear of rejection. The people who matter in your life love the REAL you. TC mark

I’m Amy Ogden. A 40 year old single woman living in New York City.

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