Perfectionism Is Anxiety Masquerading as Discipline
Why it’s time to stop fetishizing achievement-oriented pathology
As a recovering perfectionist, I feel the need to call a spade a spade — perfectionism isn’t a virtue. Somewhere along the line, we put it on the cultural pedestal and never looked back. Average achievers and procrastinators gaze at perfectionists with longing envy, wondering what day in school they must have missed where they, too, would learn how to compulsively achieve, check off their entire to-do lists, and function on four hours of sleep.
Grind culture itself is a direct result of our cultural fetishization of perfectionism. It’s the reason we brag about how overworked and overscheduled we are and how little sleep we can function on and the reason we roll our eyes with contempt whenever anyone mentions dirty words like “self-compassion” or “rest day.” (For more on this, check out “A Meditation on Not Being a Dick to Yourself.”)
Our envy and glamorization of perfectionism merely indicates how grossly we have misunderstood it. Here’s the truth: Perfectionists are not compulsively overachieving as a liberated expression of discipline and creative drive. Quite the opposite. Perfectionists are achieving as a solution to a self-worth issue. Perfectionism is not a creative act; it’s an expression of deep anxiety and fear of our not-enoughness.
Perfectionism Is About Other People
Get over your fear of other people if you really want creative success
Common symptoms of perfectionism include constant mental rumination, a profound fear of failure, and an obsessive reliance upon lists, rules, and deadlines (to name a few). To the onlooker, these may appear to be adaptive qualities designed to help one achieve, but mental rumination is only useful if we have the ability to turn it off and on at will. The fear of failure is only helpful if we have discernment about when that fear is and is not reasonable. Being meticulous about lists and rules can be a helpful trait — unless we can only be meticulous about lists and rules because there’s no off switch.
The heartbreak of perfectionism is that it’s a mental health issue, and thus, there’s no choice in the matter. These symptoms are in play at all times because our anxiety and profound self-doubt are in play at all times.
So instead of applauding compulsive overachieving when we see it, let’s get more discerning. Let’s pay closer attention to the achiever rather than the achievement. Let’s stop acknowledging folks for their results and be more curious about their process. Rather than approaching our self-doubt and anxiety with aggressive strategies for annihilating them, what would happen if we simply met ourselves with compassionate curiosity?