Am I A Perfectionist, or Am I Just An Asshole?

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.

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  • Abby

    As usual, Man Repeller knows what I need before I do, as I’m sitting here stewing on a simple, easily corrected mistake I made at work this morning. Gonna take a deep breath and let it go.

    • Also as per usual, someone in the comments said exactly what I was thinking by the time I got down to “Join the discussion…”

    • Hayley

      I love this community. Yes, I too made a simple mistake this AM at work and have been mentally punishing myself ever since. Letting go ~now~.

      • Harling Ross

        guys let’s sync up our deep breaths i’m inhaling in 3-2-1 OKAY

  • Chess

    “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfect, and work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule, the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. All perfectionism is, is the 20-ton shield that we carry around hoping that it will keep us from being hurt.”
    — Brene Brown

    Great article, thanks!

    • Chess

      Sorry some context for that quote – literally just saw it on tumblr and it was a good coincidence so I reposted it

    • Harling Ross

      GR8 QUOTE

  • Haley Nahman

    So good so wise harling and you’re the least asshole-ish person i know

    • Harling Ross

      u rly know how to make this asshole feel special. <3<3<3<3

  • Natty

    we are kindred spirits… i also lose sleep over POTENTIAL mistakes that haven’t even happened! wtf!

    • Harling Ross

      so fun being a human sometimes isn’t it???

    • Emily


  • gracesface

    Been there, done that many times. Are you familiar with the enneagram? It’s a personality test like the meyers-briggs. It’s not a cure-all but it CAN be nice to have your best/worst reflected back to you with suggestions on how to manage them. I’m a 4 and this reads a lot like you may be a 4 too Harling. Might be worth a look? Otherwise, I’ve definitely been sitting the car, rehashing what I’ve said in the last like 12 hours and then it hits me – “god, I’m uh, kind of obsessed with myself, no?” Thanks for writing this!

    • Harling Ross

      hahaha yes exactly it’s a cycle of thinking: i’m a unique flower! this mistake is the center of the universe! everyone cares! vs. i’m a self-indulgent asshole! this is the least important thing IN THE WORLD! literally no one cares!

      i need to look up this enneagram pronto

  • lauren

    love this- had written something similar on my blog.

  • Kubla

    I’m nobody. Who are you?
    Are you nobody too?

    • Mary

      Then there’s a pair of us!

  • Emily

    i’m either ridiculously self absorbed that i am blind to those / stuff happening around me, or i am so so obsessed with work / my friends / oh god i did this wrong, my manager will hate me / i’m going to get sacked for this mistake / oh no what if this happens, it hasnt yet but it might / cant sleep / help / why am i such a worrier!!! great post!

  • Thank you for writing this. I dealt with an identical situation to you last week. I realised that when I feel low because of a mistake I made – I feel REALLY low. And then I started to feel low about being low. This piece has shed some light on the subject, so thank you for that. To Chess ‘s quote below, I wonder if our efforts to be so perfect are result of deep-rooted insecurities?

  • Diana McNeill
  • belle

    I have been literally crying and losing sleep over a situation where I did EVERYTHING RIGHT but the person I had to confront was a total asshole. I truly wish I could make myself forget and stop with the guilt…as I’ve gotten older (and started anti-anxiety meds hayyyyy) I’ve improved but it’s always a process!

  • This is so brilliantly written and captures my own experience so exactly! I think the only thing that finally made me realise how self-absorbed my perfectionism could make me was living with someone whose perfectionism was way worse than mine. The constant ‘segue-ing’ – as this article put it so well – of conversations back to their perceived mistakes was exhausting and came across as so so selfish and blinkered. We only ever talked about her in almost a year of living together. Being faced with it in someone else made me realise how much I was guilty of the same thing. Love this article.
    What I wore this week | Fashion, Feminism, Mirror Selfies

  • Margot

    Ahaha and You’re such a perfectionist that you don’t confess the mistake you made

  • Oh my gosh… I totally get this feeling of being an asshole when you’re upset when something you do isn’t perfect. Thanks for sharing this! It’s a great reminder that it just doesn’t matter as much as we think it matters sometimes.
    Meg @

  • sds616

    I could not agree more. The missing piece, at least in my experience, is frequent self-forgiveness. When we violate our self-imposed code of perfectionism, we beat ourselves up and seek solace and reinforcement from others (because having a conversation with yourself is okay sometimes, but most of the time, it’s nice to get out of ourselves). I we practice self-love, self-understanding, self-improvement and self-forgiveness, our perfectionism can be a strength. Brilliant piece!

  • One of the most important things I learned about myself last year was that I need to keep the perfectionists of my life away from anything that impacts my happiness. I know it sounds harsh, but I am not a perfectionist and have never experienced more than three minutes of self doubt in a row, but three years working with perfectionists as graduate school supervisors almost killed me.

    I have never worked so hard in my life and never felt so bad. I am so amazed that people manage to live that life every day.

  • Michelle Paquet

    Thank you for this <3