I have realised perfectionism is a form of self-sabotage

Edel Coffey: For ages I ran my own personal fight club as friends lapped me with achievements

‘I stood in the starting blocks, waiting for the dust of my friends’ impressive feats to settle so I could begin my own race under perfect conditions.’ Photograph: iStock

‘I stood in the starting blocks, waiting for the dust of my friends’ impressive feats to settle so I could begin my own race under perfect conditions.’ Photograph: iStock

 

I never thought I was a perfectionist. The perfectionist in me told me I wasn’t good enough to be one. But that was back when I thought perfectionism was about doing things perfectly. It’s a common misconception. In fact, perfectionists are usually too paralysed by unrealistic goals, self-criticism and fear of failure to do very much at all.

Lately, I’ve heard the phrase “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” a lot in relation to our quest for a solution to the pandemic, but I had been familiar with the phrase for a while. Attributed to the French writer Voltaire, it was the catalyst for a big change in my own life a couple of years ago.

Perhaps this had something to do with age. I was staring down the barrel of 40. Or maybe it had more to do with becoming a mother in my late 30s. I had taken two back-to-back maternity leaves and felt myself drifting away from my career like a girl on an ice floe. It struck me with great force that the career goals I had always assumed I would get around to might now not happen at all. I looked around at friends and peers who had lapped me with their achievements. Meanwhile, I stood in the starting blocks, waiting for the dust of their impressive feats to settle so I could begin my own race under perfect conditions.

In the book Daisy Jones and The Six, author Taylor Jenkins Reid writes that “someone who insists on the perfect conditions to make art isn’t an artist. They’re an asshole.”Reader, I was that asshole.

I was waiting for a less busy time to arrive, a time with less financial or emotional responsibility, the moment when the rapids of life would quell into tranquil waters and I would magically achieve all of my goals. But very belatedly I realised I would be wrecked on the rocks of the rapids before I ever got anywhere near calm waters. So I started paddling like mad, and soon after I came across the Voltaire quote “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.

Life-changing moment

It was a small moment but I recognise it now as a life-changing one, one of those before and after events. I realised if I was ever going to achieve anything, I would have to drop the perfectionism and my expectations too. I made a resolution there and then that I would prioritise achievement over perfection from that point on. It might not be perfect, but it would be done.

I realised that all this time I had been a coward, hiding from failure in the safe space of conception

It wasn’t easy. There was a quiet desperation involved in relinquishing perfectionism, and a painful acknowledgment that I had wasted a lot of time being afraid. It’s gut-wrenching and scary trying to adjust your expectations down from “perfect” to “good enough”, but something unexpected happened when I did. I started to achieve goals. Things got ticked off the list and the results were often better than I had hoped for.

I see perfectionism now as a form of self-sabotage. I ran my own personal fight club for a long time, beating myself up if I made even the slightest mistake in my career, punishing myself if I didn’t look a certain way. Even the areas of my life that were supposed to be just for fun, hobbies like playing music in bands, became suffused with negativity if I fluffed a note on stage, which I did, regularly. The psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry says that “judging yourself as either good or bad is really not the point; the point is to do what you have always wanted to do. It can be freeing to recognise this.” And it really has been.

Cosy bedfellows

Old habits die hard though, and fear and perfectionism are still cosy bedfellows in my head. I was reminded of this just recently, when the legendary Dolly Parton posted a picture of herself as a young woman with the caption: “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”

I had been splashing about in a shallow pool of my own fear and self-loathing at the time so it struck a chord. I realised that all this time I had been a coward, hiding from failure in the safe space of conception, where everything is possible and nothing gets done. Bravery is required for so many things in life, not least accepting our own imperfections and limitations and just doing the best that we can. Now I try to acknowledge that the time will never be right for anything. Or, conversely, that the right time is now.

When I finally accepted my limitations, I managed to write my first book on my laptop in my car in the snatched moments before school pick-ups. Previously I had thought I needed the perfect desk, the perfect computer, the perfect quiet moment before I could even contemplate beginning . . . when all I actually needed was to begin.

I’m still afraid of failure but now an even stronger fear has taken its place, the fear that I won’t achieve the things I have always wanted to do. Which is why I am sticking with my motto of achievement over perfection. None of us is perfect, and we might never achieve our greatest ambitions, but to paraphrase Dolly, we owe it to ourselves to be brave enough to try.

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