A recovering perfectionist – A therapist’s story

I’d always been taught growing up to do the best I can, to achieve my potential. For a while, these things were okay. They encouraged me to put in effort, to try, to succeed. During those years, my perfectionism was doing me good, not harm.

But then I got to university, and I experienced my first bout of stress induced IBS. I was crippled by my symptoms, I couldn’t make social plans, I was struggling to sleep. In the end my roommate rang my parents to come and fetch me from University in the middle of the night and take me back home and look after me she was that worried.

I wanted to keep achieving my potential, so I continued to Masters study. By the time I had completed the dissertation, my hair was falling out, I had acne, I was irritable, and just generally unwell.

This was just the start of the impact my perfectionism was going to have on my health. At the time I didn’t recognise it as being a problem. I thought I needed it to do well, that without it I wouldn’t be good enough.

In the subsequent years, the most common feedback I got on PDP at yearly job reviews was “goes above and beyond”, “exceeds expectations”. I got so much positive reinforcement, encouragement and praise for the end result of my perfectionism. It encouraged me to do it more. It made me believe that my perfectionism was an asset, my superpower.

A number of years later and I was working 80 hour weeks as standard. My workload was too high, but I didn’t want to let people down, I didn’t want to be seen to not do a good job, so I just kept working more hours. I missed family occasions, I turned up late, I cancelled plans, all to make time for work. I lost my annual leave, never stopped to eat, and just generally exhausted myself.

In the next few jobs, the impact of my perfectionism got worse. I visited the doctors with terrible migraines, I was struggling with my IBS again, the acne had come back, my sleep was terrible, my work life balance was even worse.

In the end I quite my job with a week’s notice, with no plan. I couldn’t do it anymore. It was making me ill.

Thankfully my life and health are very different now. I practice what I preach with both my clients and supervisees. I take about 8 weeks leave a year, I schedule lunch breaks, I have built hobbies and socialising into my life, I make time for the activities that restore my energy, and I do so not only without guilt but proudly.

It was a process to get to that point, and a tough one at that. At first the guilt, the not feeling good enough flared up so strongly. I kept wanting to go back to my old comfortable ways. When I decided to never start work before 10am, I had to work hard not to absorb people’s comments and views about this. I wasn’t being lazy, I was working in a way that was healthy and sustainable for me.

I am glad to call myself a recovering perfectionist now. I now understand that I can be great at my job without going to the lengths that make me ill. I don’t need my perfectionism in order to succeed.
I now know very clearly that perfectionism is toxic to me. That chase for the impossible, that always trying harder, never feeling I’ve done enough – it’s not good for me.

My personal experience, combined with my therapy training means I can really help those who identify with this same story.

Found this useful? Read my blog on recovering from People-pleasing: Understanding People Pleasing – from an expert psychotherapist | Hannah Paskin (hannahpaskintherapy.co.uk)

Wondering if I’m the therapist to help you? Read this blog; Why Should I Choose You? | Hannah Paskin (hannahpaskintherapy.co.uk)