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Latent Lollygagger: The Feeling of Perfectionism

This month’s theme is Perfectionism.

Perfectionism isn’t itself a feeling. So, what does my perfectionism feel like?

Perfectionism feels like a pinch in my stomach, the first hint that I’m not doing something right. It is the same pinch that I feel when I get rejected or get difficult feedback or when someone pulls out in front of me on the road or doesn’t give me six feet of space right now.

Perfectionism feels like a building up of pressure, my skin straining as the pressure on the inside expands and threatens to burst. It is the same pressure that I feel when I lie in bed in the morning, hitting snooze after snooze, trying to plan everything out in my mind before they even start.

Perfectionism feels like guilt, that I’m breaking some unwritten rule if I don’t do something “right” or if I leave something done imperfectly. It is the same guilt that (until the shelter-in-place) I feel in my stomach if I worked from home while my team was at the office, if I started my workday a little late or ended a little early, if I took a long lunch to run, like I was sneaking around despite the fact that (a) no one cares and (b) I’m getting my work done.

Perfectionism feels like shame, that I’m not good enough (for what? love? deserving?) if I don’t do something perfectly or I’m not perceived as perfect. It is the same shame I feel if I make even a minor mistake, misstep, misspeak, making me feel about eight years old and like I can’t live up to expectations and am stupid and should just keep my mouth shut.

Perfectionism feels like a constant fear, an avoidance of making mistakes rather than chasing a desired outcome. It’s a looking over the shoulder, or for me, a sense that a hypothetical omnipresent critical being is watching my every move, tallying all my actions and thoughts, always finding me wanting, always finding me not quite able to bridge the gap between good enough and perfect.

Perfectionism is also a fear driven by an engrained belief that my worth is dependent on meeting external definitions of success, by being smart of successful or “put together” or the best at something. By that logic, if I don’t do something perfectly, I am a horrible person not deserving of love. That is the logic of the critical being.

Even though I feel this “being” as something external, like I’m wandering the jungle at night and can only see a bunch of glowing eyes watching me, of course this being is truly internal, my inner critic.

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

But of course, it is easier to project the judgment I have for myself onto others.

Why do I say “of course?” Wouldn’t it be easier to see the perfectionism for what it is, something of my own construction, the way my brain is wired, the things it internalized as I grew up?

Sure, in a world driven by self-aware logic.

But the perfectionism is like a parasite—it needs its host to live, which means the host cannot start realizing that it has control over the parasite and has the tools it needs to quiet it down.

No, the parasite needs the host to think that the parasite is “out there” always watching and there’s nothing to be done about it, and—and this is important—that it’s right.

All these feelings that come with perfectionism, the parasite has co-opted into making me think they’re feelings that will go away if I do things perfectly.

When, in fact, these are all feelings alerting me to the presence of this intruder, this parasite, and that I need to take action.

And then this parasite has the gall to tell me that if I were perfect, I wouldn’t have the parasite in my brain to begin with. That it’s my fault. That it’s still absolute proof that I’m not worthy.

I will probably never expel the parasite completely from my brain.

Did you ever see those videos of parasitic worms being removed from people (not for the squeamish)? An incision would be made in the foot, or leg, the worm would be coaxed out around a stick, and slowly slowly wrapped around. Slowly, as in days. Feet and feet of worm out of a human body.

I wish I could do that with my perfection parasite.

Instead, I think I can at least put it to sleep here and there. Remind it that I’m giving it a place to live and in exchange it can shut up.

Or, if it won’t shut up, I can tune it out. I don’t have to believe it when it tells me how horrible I am.

I mean, what does a worm know, anyway?

How does perfectionism affect your life? How do you embrace imperfectionism? Comment below or on my Facebook page.

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