A couple months ago, I made a mistake — a mistake small enough to not have any major consequences, but big enough to send me into a mental tailspin of self-doubt and unrelenting anxiety for the following 48 hours. I brought up the mistake to friends, family members, coworkers — rehashing it, segueing the conversation back to it, asking for advice, rejecting advice, rolling it over and over in my mind like an everlasting gobstopper of self-torture. I’m embarrassed to admit I also lost sleep over it, teared up about it on at least two separate occasions and felt physically nauseous on three.
Like I said, the mistake wasn’t astronomical. It probably didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It won’t affect my credit score or my love life or my chances of becoming president. In all likelihood, I’m the only person who gave it a second thought. But none of this negates the reality that it absolutely undid me.
It wasn’t until I was fretting about the same mistake to a very patient coworker for — I kid you not — the THIRD time that I realized something: my absolute intolerance for any kind of personal imperfection had turned me into (drumroll please)…an asshole.
The funny thing is that up to that point, I always thought my perfectionism made me special (have I mentioned that I’m a millennial?) For as long as I can remember, my perfectionist inclinations had tangible benefits. It’s not hard to understand why. Perfectionism is a great tool for achievement in that it pushes you to be better and do better than you would otherwise. It definitely helped me in school, and it continues to help me in many ways as an employee.
But there’s a flip side to this payoff. Perfectionism necessitates a painful awareness of your imperfectness. The futility of striving for perfection, the knowledge that you have failed in the past and will certainly fail again and the inherent inability to consistently measure up to the unrealistic standard you have set forth is collectively what makes that very standard feel so important and necessary. It’s a vicious cycle — not to mention ironic.
I now realize how narcissistic it was for me to ever think I could beat it. What a joke. I’m a pawn in my own game! Whenever I make a semi-noticeable faux pas — at work, in relationships, in a social setting — I get tunnel vision. I clear out every inch of space in my brain to make room for the urge to self-flagellate. Everything else gets pushed aside.
I usually manage to keep these feelings locked up in my personal mental panic room, but sometimes the tide of anxiety is too strong, the dam breaks and it’s all I can talk about to anyone kind enough to listen. That’s when I feel like an asshole — because who am I to act like my desire for perfection is something special? It’s merely a symptom of my capacity for failure, and there’s nothing more blissfully commonplace, or reassuringly human, than that.
Photos by Edith Young.