Not Even Good Enough at Being a Perfectionist!
There is a voice in my head that sounds like me, but it is not me. Her name is Miss Critic and she is a clever one.
She doesn’t say, “you’re worthless. You’re stupid. You’re ugly. You can’t get anything right.” No, she’s more subtle than that. Stealthy in fact. She whispers to me bittersweet nothings, most of the time so quietly that I’m barely aware she’s even talking. When she does talk, she speaks to me in “buts.”
She says, “you’re looking good Alison, but you could lose a couple of kilos.”
She says, “you’re intelligent, but no one will take you seriously unless you have a PhD.”
She says, “you’re a good daughter seeing your parents often, but you shouldn’t be irritated by them when you spend time with them.”
She says, “you worked hard today, but you’re not productive enough.”
She says, “well done for completing that new pole move, but your form was terrible.”
She’s not a monster. She doesn’t torture me. There’s no dwelling, no rumination, no sadness — most of the time anyway. She serves up her “buts” and moves on. It’s just how it is. Her and me, how it’s always been. In fact, I’m sure she’s pushed me to be where I am today, and for that, I will always be grateful to her. But I can never please her. It’s never enough. I’m never enough.
I had my first coaching session at work a few weeks ago, and my coach asked me if I was a perfectionist. I said in a heartbeat, “no.”
Can you imagine?! All these thoughts in my head and I didn’t even recognise that they were glaring, flashing, shining beacons, boringly-straightforward symptoms of perfectionism.
It’s like I’m a fish in the sea and my coach fish has just asked me, “are you wet?” “No!” I mouth with my pursed fish lips. “What are you talking about? What’s wet?! Blub, blub, blub.” My tiny fish brain didn’t even realise that I was swimming in water because I’ve never known another way.
This is a perfect example of exactly how perfectionist-ic I am. I’m not even good enough at being a perfectionist!
On most days, the energy Miss Critic gives is channelled into positive, socially acceptable self-improvement. She’s helped me get promotions, start a business, start coaching, start writing, start making videos, start podcasting. I find it fun, I love the adventure, I love swimming. The ocean current pulls me to be more, do more and I swim joyfully with it. I shrug off her criticism like, well water off a fish’s back…
Okay the fish metaphor breaks down here, but the point is that she and I co-exist together happily. Most of the time.
Occasionally a storm starts brewing over the ocean though. The pressure slowly builds, winds pick up speed and momentum and soon a swirling typhoon forms. At this point, Miss Critic makes herself very known.
“You, Alison, [in insert topic here] are not good enough!”
I hear her voice loud and clear and I know that soon there will be a lot of tears.
Over the years there have been a number of typhoons, although they are infrequent, they appear consistently, and handily only focus on one domain at a time, appearance, relationships, work, achievements etc… Reflecting on it now when all is calm, it seems unusual, weird even that I could get so worked up about something that is ultimately good, but not perfect. But yet I do, and reliably so.
My incredible partner Neil (who is usefully a coach too) helps me talk through her voice. Or rather, her voice talks through me. She rips through me in fact. All her mean words and judgement spill out between sobs. And I cry. I cry out the pain, the injustice, the ridiculousness. Neil used to be surprised at the intensity of the storm because there was often little in the form of a warning. To be honest, I am surprised too because I couldn’t tell that it was brewing inside me either.
With Neil’s help, kindness and patience eventually, I start to see that her voice is irrational and hurtful. I don’t have to listen to it. She doesn’t have to control me. Eventually, the typhoon blows itself out, the energy dissipates, calm returns and I can go back to swimming happily again.
I am grateful that the destruction is just to myself because I would hate for anyone to stray into Miss Critic’s path and feel her wrath. Sometimes, for a particular domain, the typhoon is a one-and-done. Her voice stays quiet and the issue never bothers me again. Other areas do not appear to have such resolution. Sometimes she sneaks back in but my radar is now better attuned to her tricks and going forward I can better hear her and manage her. Future typhoons can be downgraded to regular storm category, or even just weather.
So why share this with you?
As someone who creates self-improvement content, I see it as my moral and ethical duty to raise awareness of the dark side of self-improvement. And as a recovering perfectionist, I want to reassure you that my approach as a creator will always be one of curiosity and exploration, never judgement or expectation.
I’m also sharing this with you so that you can consider where you might be on the scale of “healthy striving” to “unhealthy perfectionism”, to “malevolent self-criticism”. So that you can start to question whether you might be in an abusive relationship with yourself and have the courage to admit that the voice, whatever you call her, is not appropriate and it’s not okay.
You might not know where you are on the scale, that’s okay too. If you can, try and take time out to listen and dive to the bottom of the ocean to see if that is where she is hiding. If you can hear any words down in those murky depths, ask yourself:
- would you say that to a friend?
- would you let someone talk to your friend that way?
If the answer is “no”, you’re not alone. It’s her, she’s there. And although you think that it might be better if she just took off and left forever, she is still a part of you. Sometimes even a helpful part. Your job as you is to recognise that you hear her, but that you don’t have to listen to her. You don’t have to believe everything she says. You have the power to choose for yourself. You can keep swimming happily.
And you really are not alone, because I’m on the journey with you.
And if together, we could only remember just one thing, then let it be these words from the mind of someone who worked all this crap out and then wrote the book on it. Literally, the book is called You Are Enough. The quote goes like this:
“You are enough not because you did or said or thought or bought or became or created something special, you are enough because you always were.” Marisa Peer.