‘Have you made your bed yet?’ I called out to my eight-year-old son, Rafe.
As I popped my head into his bedroom, he nodded proudly and stepped out of the way to show me his still-skewed duvet.
Instantly, I wanted to pull it tight, get rid of the creases and straighten his pillow. You see, I love to have things just right. I felt the frustration rising – it would take me just two seconds to do it better myself.
But, with a burst of concerted effort, I just smiled at him, told him he’d done a good job and gave him a big hug.
And that is because I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve taken that overwhelming pressure off myself – a pressure that, for so long, I didn’t even realise I was carrying.
Looking back, I’ve always been a perfectionist. As a child, it was the family joke that I would always be the last one ready when we went out, as I tried on countless outfits again and again, trying to find the ‘perfect’ one.
Homework was a torturous affair that I’d leave until the last minute because I was so determined for it to be great that I’d be scared to start it.
Yet it was only in my mid-20s that I really started to recognise it. ‘It’s like walking on eggshells being around you,’ my first boyfriend told me once, shaking his head. ‘I’m always scared I’m going to get something wrong and you’ll blow up.’
At the time, I couldn’t understand what he meant. But looking back now, I could see how difficult it must have been to be around someone like me. Often stressed out or running late from spending too long on things I wanted to get just right.
After meeting my now-husband, Tim, I was so swept up in finding the ‘perfect’ house for us that I arranged 28 viewings.
When we went to paint the walls, I covered them completely in different sample shades of grey and spent so long picking the flooring that the company no longer stocked it by the time I went back to buy it.
I was constantly worried. Worried I was making the wrong decision, worried other people wouldn’t like my decision, or worried how much it would cost to replace if I didn’t make the right decision.
I was also tired. Not just physically from my late nights researching the best shade of grey to go in a south-facing room, but also mentally tired – of myself.
My constantly whirring thoughts gave me no rest.
As I went for interviews at my banking job, I was aware enough, when asked what my biggest failing was, to admit, ‘I’m a bit of a perfectionist’, with a small laugh added on the end.
Of course, I know now that you can’t be ‘a bit’ of a perfectionist. You either are one, or you’re not. And I certainly was.
I remember shouting at my brother-in-law in frustration as he helped make up the gift bags for Rafe’s first birthday party when I realised he’d folded them in half to stick them down, rather than a third. We laugh about it now but at the time, I was genuinely annoyed they wouldn’t look ‘just so’.
For a long time, being a perfectionist was my badge of honour – a part of my identity. I believed that caring so much and putting so much effort into my decisions, both personal and professional, was the right thing to do.
And of course, it is good to take pride in your work, and believe that if you’re going to do something, you want to do it well.
Yet, as I’ve realised over the years, it can be bad for you.
It wasn’t rare for my quest for perfectionism to leave me in tears. I constantly felt anguished and fearful, waking up at 3am, worrying about work I’d done that day, or work I had to do the next.
I remember once nearly turning down a promotion because I wasn’t convinced that I could do the new job immediately to the highest standard. I didn’t have a website for my business for six years because I couldn’t decide on the name, logo or branding.
My perfectionism was costing me – emotionally, mentally and even financially.
Then, four years ago, in my desire to go deeper with my coaching clients, I came across some research that completely changed my way of thinking.
It was by Michael Neill and he challenged the idea that stress and struggle were a prerequisite for success. Instead, he showed me the way we are actually designed as human beings and how everything we experience comes from the inside-out.
So while I was trying to feel better about myself by external things – writing the perfect report at work, picking the perfect tile at home – I had to just accept that I was a whole being already, who could release myself from other people’s expectations.
And, more importantly, my own.
Because, if I wasn’t perfect, if I did make a mistake, what would be the worst that would happen? Absolutely nothing!
I used to panic over what to order in a restaurant. ‘Come back to me last,’ I’d smile at the waiter, while running frantically through the options, listening to what everyone else was having. But really, did it matter whether I got vegetarian or the chicken?
My experience of eating them would be the same – the only difference was how stressed out I was making myself, trying to pick the ‘perfect’ meal.
By trying to be perfect in a world where no one else was, I realised I was robbing the joy from life. I remind myself that, as Roosevelt said, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy!’
I wasn’t stopping to see Rafe’s pride in making his own bed, before re-doing it ‘better’ myself. I wasn’t stopping to appreciate how lovely my new living room looked because I was too focused on whether the shade of grey on the walls was correct.
It was a hugely liberating revelation. Of course, four years on, I still slip back into my old, perfectionist tendencies, but now I’m getting far better at catching myself at it, far quicker, and letting go. I call it The Botox Approach, removing my ‘AJE’ (Assumptions, Judgements and Expectations) swiftly.
It doesn’t mean I don’t give my all at work anymore – far from it. In fact, now I’m not wasting time, worrying over every single word in an email or the colour of every slide in a powerpoint presentation, I’m actually far more efficient and productive.
In the future, will I still feel the impulse to spend an extra hour on that email to my newsletter list or to straighten my daughter’s hair clips? Possibly!
But will I be kinder to myself when I notice I’ve accidentally slipped into my people-pleasing, procrastinating, perfectionist habit? Absolutely!
The quicker I acknowledge it’s not actually helpful, the quicker I can change.
I’m determined not to go back to the torture chamber of my perfectionist ways – and that’s why I’ll always walk away from my son and his slightly wonky duvet. And be proud of myself for that.
For more information, visit Gita’s website here. As told to Sarah Whiteley.
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