Perfectionism

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have plenty of ideas in my head and still draft pieces as I’m walking around but haven’t found the time or the headspace to write anything down, and part of that is thanks to one of my biggest flaws: perfectionism.

I’ve often thought of it as being low self-esteem or anxiety, and I’m sure they’re contributing factors, but what it boils down to is that I am a perfectionist. I hate getting things wrong and hate feeling like I’ve made a bad job of something, or haven’t done as much as I could have done. In some ways this is useful and it makes me good at many parts of my job, but it is also self-destructive. I get far too upset about the little things and that lack of perspective is really unhelpful.

There are a couple of recent examples of this. One is the issue I’ve written a few blogs on this year, about body image. I am still struggling to view myself in a healthy and positive way since gaining some weight. I do not always recognise myself when I catch sight of my reflection, which I find unnerving, and I do not feel attractive at all. I think a lot of this problem is in my head: my body shape has not changed THAT much. But it is different. For most of my adult life I’ve been able to walk into shops, pick up the smallest size on the rack, and it will probably fit, or it will be a bit big. Now, I essentially have no idea what size I am. Clothes I’ve worn in the last few days have ranged in size from a 6 to a 12. I am throwing out a lot of clothes that no longer fit, but when it comes to buying new ones, as well as not knowing what size to choose, I don’t really know what will be flattering anymore. I can’t “get away with” some options I’ve worn in the past. High-waisted pencil skirts used to be sleek and slimming but now make me look squat and shorter than I am. T-shirts no longer sit neatly above my jeans but get a little stuck on a bit of tummy and make me look like I’ve had an over-generous lunch.

Or do they? I am aware that my own view of myself is not healthy and not necessarily grounded in reality. I’ve had other periods in my life when I’ve had half of my brain absolutely convinced of something, while the other half is fairly sure the first half has lost the plot. I had a brief period years ago when I was convinced I was pregnant. I wasn’t. I had nearly a year when I was certain that my hair was falling out. It stressed me out horribly, and I was forever checking my hairline in the mirror and trying to judge whether it had changed. My hair wasn’t falling out at all, or no more than is normal, and eventually the anxiety subsided and I forgot about it. I fear the same thing is happening with my view of my own body, that I see something that isn’t really there.

It is a certainty that my body has changed over the last few years, as I’ve hit 30 and been commuting and sitting down for an extra three hours a day. But I don’t know if the change is as drastic as I perceive it to be. I do have little stretch marks on my inner thighs, and I’ve never had stretch marks before so I’ve found that a little bewildering and upsetting. It’s on one leg more than the other, and they don’t seem to be fading, so I’m a bit worried that they’re not normal – even though really I know they probably are, it’s just new and I no longer have that “skinny” body I’ve had for so long.

The other ridiculous thing, as well as worrying about any of it unduly, is that even when I was very slim and had none of these issues with a tummy or stretch marks or anything else, I wasn’t happy. I thought I was TOO thin, a view backed up for me by various people at high school and all the media ever that tells you that “men like a bit of meat on your bones”, or “men only like big boobs”, etc etc. So I’m upset about losing something I didn’t particularly like. What a mess.

The other perfectionist example is from this week, when we had a pub quiz as part of a team building week. One of our founders is also a quiz master so once or twice a year, he puts together a quiz for us. In the first ever work quiz, I was on a team with the CEO and overruled him on a question about the bridge on the river Kwai. It turned out he was right, and although we won, he brought it up the following year, making me realise he hadn’t forgotten my mistake. (This is hell for a perfectionist, who hates being reminded of mistakes, even when they’re seemingly inconsequential quiz answers.) This week at the quiz, a question on the bridge on the river Kwai came up again. I completely lost my head (aided by some wine) and insisted I knew the answer – unfortunately, I once again put down the wrong thing (the bridge on the river Kwai is in Thailand, not, as I seem to be utterly convinced, in Myanmar). When I realised my mistake I felt like chucking myself off a bridge, and ever since whenever I think of it I cringe and inwardly berate myself for being such an idiot.

I bet you’re laughing though, aren’t you? To everybody else, it’s a very funny story about how fallible a person can be, insisting on making the same mistake twice instead of saying ‘bridge on the river Kwai? Count me out, I am not getting involved’ or thinking about it for two seconds and saying ‘I can’t believe it is Thailand, because they’re the only southeast Asian country not to be invaded in World War Two so I have no idea why anybody was doing anything with a bridge there, but it is Thailand’. I’m sure everyone’s lives are full of these silly moments which make you pull a rueful face, but to me they mean more than they should, and there seems to be a part of me which really feels like I’ve failed when I make any kind of mistake like that. Half the fun and potential for fallout from quizzes is that you have to make a decision as a team, some people will be ignored or overruled, some people will insist on certain answers, and everyone at some point will be wrong. It shouldn’t matter, but because I have an unrealistic idea of how perfect I can be if I only try hard enough, I feel like it does matter and everyone is sneering at me for being so stupid. Even though, really, I know they’re not, and it’s making mistakes like these that make people like you more because you are human and they can imagine the pain of realising what a goon you’ve been and empathise with that. (For the record, my team won the quiz anyway – and apparently the rest of the company have never seen me so ecstatic; I reacted as if I’d won the lottery and a gold medal at the Olympics and the World Cup all at the same time.)

Being a perfectionist is a real pain in the arse. I wish I had a more realistic and healthy view of myself and a more positive attitude towards my own failures. I waste a lot of time worrying about things I can’t change that nobody else thinks are problems anyway. I don’t really have a neat solution today – I’ve been this way for a long time and learning to be kinder to myself is not going to be quick or easy. It doesn’t help that most of what we read tells us how happy we’ll be once we’re a) thin and beautiful and b) wildly successful. And all that involves striving for perfection, being your “best self”, picking the best selfie for Instagram, never eating cake, always getting the promotion, never getting fired, always being in a relationship, never regretting a decision, and so on. I’m trying to take baby steps, giving myself permission to shop around for new clothes, and practising self-care when things don’t fit; and reminding myself that embracing imperfection makes you far more fun and likable than if you’re always pristine and never trip over your own feet or say something stupid. Nobody is ever going to be perfect, despite what social media may want us to believe. I will, however, learn something about the bridge on the river Kwai, other than the fact that it is – allegedly – in Thailand.

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