Growing up, my parents (particularly my mom) expected greatness. This helped me do well in school but it also had a negative side effect: I became a perfectionist. I think perfectionism is tied to pleasing others and trying to make sure people like us. If we are perfect, you have to love us right? We feel like we aren't good enough as is, so if we are perfect, it will make up for it.
Both of my parents were the oldest in their families and came from low-income households. They were both the first to attend college in each of their families and did so completely on their own at 17. My dad's dad died when he was 14, and my mom grew up in a very chaotic household. They had a no-nonsense approach to life because they overcame so much to get where they are.
They expected a lot from my brother and I; honestly, they were a bit emotionally unavailable. People-pleasing was my way to make sure I was doing the best I could to make my parents happy.
While I don't think it was intentional, my parents set me up to avoid failure at all costs. Which basically translated to: take no risks. If you stick to things you know you will be successful at, you'll never fail. On top of those restrictions, I also chose things that I felt would not only be easy for me but would also be rewarded with praise.
We feel like we aren't good enough as is, so if we are perfect, it will make up for it.
Despite being a perfectionist, during my rebellious streak, I didn't go to college right after high school. I actually got married at 18, had a daughter at 20, and only then did I decide to go back to school. I chose to go into education because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I also knew I would be able to take easy math classes. Once again, less challenge meant less failure.
In my senior year, I realized that education was not for me, but I decided to finish the degree and go through the internship anyway — just to make sure. I cried so many times during those four months. At that point, I was 100% sure teaching elementary school was not my calling! When I told my parents, my dad showed up unannounced at my house to try and talk me out of making that decision. Luckily, in addition to being a people-pleaser, I am also exceptionally stubborn once I make a decision.
I ended up in human resources. I loved it for a while, especially when I worked in campus recruitment. Unfortunately, I let my people-pleasing get the best of me because my husband didn't like that I was traveling so much. I loved the traveling, but to make him happy I went into an HR advisor role with no travel. He didn't ask me to do that, but I could sense he wasn't happy and that was just how I was back then.
I never knew anything different; there was simply no other way to be. I was raised to believe that high-achievement was admirable and failure simply wasn't an option. And yet, no matter how "perfect" I was, by the time I was 30, I hated my job, had two degrees I didn't want to use, and no direction on where I wanted to go. What went wrong?
How Perfectionism Can Hurt Us
If you looked at my life at 30, you may have thought, "What's the problem?" I had a great marriage, an awesome daughter, and a well-paying job at a global company.
The problem was that I wasn't living up to my potential. I didn't know who I was or what I wanted. I was "successful" on the outside, but on the inside, I was completely lost. I had spent my life chasing perfection by avoiding even the smallest chance of failure, and where had that gotten me?
I was raised to believe that high-achievement was admirable and failure simply wasn't an option. And yet, no matter how "perfect" I was, by the time I was 30, I hated my job, had two degrees I didn't want to use, and no direction on where I wanted to go.
I started drinking more and gained weight because I couldn't figure out why I couldn't just be happy. I thought there was something wrong with me. And, what's more, I had a ton of trouble asking for help. This tendency of mine was apparent in both my work and in my relationships. I felt like I had to do everything myself because I couldn't trust anyone else to do it right. This led to severe burnout. I was never able to trust other people the way I wanted, so instead of letting people help me, I would take everything on myself. I also never wanted to burden anyone with any task I could do myself, even if I was in a higher position.
Perfectionism can lead to several different psychological problems such as depression, bulimia, anorexia, and other eating disorders and mental illness. For me, this meant feeling like I was never good enough and getting burnt out; for you, it might mean something different entirely. But what we all have in common is that little voice in our head that tells us that nothing less than perfect is good enough.
Eventually, I left one HR job for a similar but higher-paying role, and soon after realized I hated the new job. So, I went back to my old job, and soon after I realized that I didn't like that one either. Then one day after a dentist appointment and a weekday morning, I popped into a Starbucks and was surprised to see it pretty full despite being a weekday.
I was so intrigued as to how these people were able to make a living like this — working out of a Starbucks. My curiosity peaked, and I haven't gone back. This one event set off a deep desire in myself to make that life happen, which led me to a huge personal development quest. In the quest, I learned the biggest hang-up for me getting to that life I wanted was my people-pleasing ways. I would have to change things about myself that made everyone else happy so that I could be happy. In other words, I had to stop being perfect.
How Do We Overcome Perfectionism?
After obsessively taking every personality test there was, I learned I was an INFJ Myers Briggs type. One characteristic of this personality is black and white thinking. I was either good or bad, perfect or a failure — no in between. As I dove deeper into personal development I learned this way of thinking was severely holding me back. I read a ton of books and blogs and I listened to countless podcasts and finally learned that the most successful people view failure as a stepping stone to success. This was completely the opposite of how I had previously been living and has led to a far more mindful existence.
Becoming more mindful has helped me so much. I started with yoga at home, by myself. I struggled with comparing myself to others at first; I was a beginner and not super flexible. I was afraid of even going into a studio and being judged for my comparative lack of abilities. But, after practicing at home for a year, I overcame my fear and talked my friend into going with me to a studio — imperfection on full display.
Perfectionism can lead to several different psychological problems... For me, this meant feeling like I was never good enough and getting burnt out; for you, it might mean something different entirely. But what we all have in common is that little voice in our head that tells us that nothing less than perfect is good enough.
And, you know what? The more I went, the less afraid I felt. I started listening to the teachers on all the aspects of yoga. Comparison is not the way of the yogi. It freed me from the notion that I needed to be at a certain level. I let go and just lived in the moment. Yoga is such an amazing practice to get in tune with yourself. I even started meditating for about five minutes a day to go inward. I have always been a future tripper. I lived in the pursuit of my next great achievement, never stopping to be happy about what I had done. Yoga and meditation are practices that get you into the now. This was something I desperately needed, and as I worked on these practices, I started to feel more at peace with my life as it is in the moment.
Another huge help for me was my journey in reading self-improvement books. The more I read about successful people, the more I realized that my avoidance of trying anything even remotely challenging was not going to make me successful. These people took a totally different approach. If they were failing it meant they were learning and growing. They were getting closer to their goals, while I was living in fear and staying stuck.
All of these experiences helped me to see that there was another way. I needed to get in touch with what I wanted and let go of the idea that everything needed to be perfect. Living with a growth mindset has helped me see there truly is no failure as long as we learn something from every experience.
WRITTEN BYErin Moody