Needing to be “perfect” all the time

by Christine on May 22nd, 2012

filed under Christine's Life Updates

Yesterday I had a bit of an epiphany:

I need to be perfect. All. The. Time.

I always kind of knew this in some way, but I always called it being “a little odd” or “anal retentive” or “OCD.”  I never really put it like that: “The need to be right all the time,” but it’s true. I have an obsessive need to do the best possible job at all time and be as perfect as I can be at all times.

It’s crazy. My life is good—really good! But if 11 out of 12 things are going well for me, the one thing that is off-kilter will send me spiraling into a depression or an anxiety attack. It can be as small as having dishes in the sink or being late for an appointment (which, as it happened, is what triggered me yesterday).

And it’s not just my mood that gets affected. I have a hard time forcing myself to try new things that I think I’ll suck at (note: remember when I tried playing flag football this fall and got tackled within 30 seconds? And I vowed never to play again?) or, for example, I have a hard time going to sleep if I have laundry waiting to be finished. When I throw a girls-night party at my house, I get so crazy over cleaning the house, having the right food, games, and party favors, that I exhaust myself and spend so much time in an anxious fit that I don’t spend any time socializing with my friends. It seems that everything becomes a casualty when I get obsessive about having everything just right.

Why do I do this? Obviously it all stems from my childhood, but two different things have contributed to this. For starters, I had an overachieving older brother that my parents pretty much hero-worshipped. I knew I could never be as popular, handsome, smart, or talented as him, but damn I sure tried to live up to his standards. Why? Because I wanted to my mom’s acknowledgement and respect. Which I rarely got. I remember one time I got a report card with all As and a B-, and my mom’s reply was “you need to try harder. This isn’t good enough.”  And so I just kept trying harder. (It’s no surprise that I eventually “figured the whole school thing out” and graduated with a 4.0 for my Masters Degree.)

The second reason why I do this is a little more complicated. I was often…harassed or verbally abused, especially if I stepped out of line or did something noticeable. In fact, I would say I mastered the art of being invisible and staying off the radar. Nothing gets you noticed faster that fucking up a task, so I worked my ass of to get shit done right and done well to avoid a future confrontation. I remember one time I was asked to go out and mow the lawn, and I was so afraid that I wasn’t doing it right – all those pesky long-grassed trimmings at the edges of the lawn—that I subsequently spent about 5 hours trimming all the edges with a pair of scissors until my fingers bled. All so I didn’t get yelled at for not doing it right the first time. When I was in middle school I got teased for having blingy hair-scrunchies and different clothes (I nearly got my ass beat once for wearing a new brand of jeans, Guess Jeans, that nobody heard of). So I just learned to dress tidily, usually all in black or solid colors, nothing noticeable or offensive. Boring. Yes, I was very, very boring.

This perfectionism OCD-ness has reaches in all areas of my life. My work needs to be done just right before it goes out the door. I will get depressed and hide in the bedroom if I forget to pick up the gallon of milk hubby asked me to get after work, or forget to pick up the dry cleaning. I berate myself for not calling my family enough and not being a good enough daughter.

This whole innate desire to get it Just. Perfect. definitely can be seen with my weight, self-image, and food issues. I realize now that I’ll never look in the mirror and like what I see. Something will always need to be fixed. (I spent a solid hour at work looking up information on getting plastic surgery done on my eyes, to eliminate the bags under them.)  The fact is, even after a year of “maintenance mode” following gastric banding surgery, I still don’t feel confident that I have my body under control. I also don’t feel that I have my eating under control. (After missing my pysch appointment yesterday I consumed 4 candy bars and cried in my car.)   

And when my weight fluctuates over my Goal Weight (125 pounds), even 3 pounds or more, I berate myself, find myself tottering on the line of depression.

I know that being obsessive about getting it just perfect all the time is toxic and not healthy. But knowing that and stopping how I feel are two radically different things. I don’t know how to change my attitude, perspective, and goals.

Obviously I will bring this up to my doctor the next time I meet with him. I’m not really sure how to get over this, but at least I’ve recognized it.

 

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  • Guest

    Wow. I could have written that, word for word. I make a small mistake that most people would forget almost immediately, and it haunts me for hours. If I miss a turn heading somewhere in the car, if I accidentally buy 2% milk instead of fat-free, if I get the umpteenth generic rejection letter during my job search–all of it sends me into a self-loathing spiral. For a while in early adulthood, I ate whatever I wanted because (for whatever reason) that was an area I didn’t feel obligated to perfect. But then I realized I needed to lose 15 pounds, and the shame-cycle and self-hate started again. Being married makes it harder to hide my anxiety and rage towards myself.

    My childhood environment was very similar to yours, with the exception that my older brother was the one with the problems, so I was expected to be perfect and not cause one second of trouble since my parents had their hands full with him. I got a B+ one semester in French, and my mom very seriously asked me if I needed a tutor. Being 5 minutes late for curfew (despite being the kid who ALWAYS checked in and never lied about where she was) got me grounded for days. So, like you, it was easier to decide that I would kill myself trying to do everything perfectly the first time. I am never late, never unprepared, never underdressed, never unpleasant to others, and it’s exhausting.

  • Guest

    Wow. I could have written that, word for word. I make a small mistake that most people would forget almost immediately, and it haunts me for hours. If I miss a turn heading somewhere in the car, if I accidentally buy 2% milk instead of fat-free, if I get the umpteenth generic rejection letter during my job search–all of it sends me into a self-loathing spiral. For a while in early adulthood, I ate whatever I wanted because (for whatever reason) that was an area I didn’t feel obligated to perfect. But then I realized I needed to lose 15 pounds, and the shame-cycle and self-hate started again. Being married makes it harder to hide my anxiety and rage towards myself.

    My childhood environment was very similar to yours, with the exception that my older brother was the one with the problems, so I was expected to be perfect and not cause one second of trouble since my parents had their hands full with him. I got a B+ one semester in French, and my mom very seriously asked me if I needed a tutor. Being 5 minutes late for curfew (despite being the kid who ALWAYS checked in and never lied about where she was) got me grounded for days. So, like you, it was easier to decide that I would kill myself trying to do everything perfectly the first time. I am never late, never unprepared, never underdressed, never unpleasant to others, and it’s exhausting.