Editor’s note: Liberty Forrest, author of several self-help books and a certified Law of Attraction Life Coach, explains how she developed a need for perfection based in fear, and how she let it go. Read more about Liberty.
By Liberty Forrest
I’ve been a perfectionist about many things in my life and thankfully, have let go of most of that tendency. The need for perfection came from a massive fear of failure. And the massive fear of failure came from a deeply rooted belief that I was not lovable. If I could just be good enough, I would be worthy of love. Of course, that wasn’t in my conscious mind but that’s what was going on. Being taken from my birth mother after bonding with her, then into foster care, then adopted into a home where my mother did not like me…well, I was still a baby but had already been imbued with the belief that no one wanted me or loved me.
My mother did her best with the tools she had at the time, which I can appreciate now. However, for decades I felt the impact of the emotional wounds she carried. I would never—could never be “good enough.” She made it clear that she didn’t like me and I couldn’t do anything right. She could not be pleased, not just with me but with everyone (except my brother, upon whom she doted to a disturbing degree). So I developed a need for perfection, hoping I might garner at least a modicum of favour, to no avail.
Time and healing have allowed me to be kind to my mother, who has been in spirit for many years now. I do not wish to label her a sociopath at this point but let’s just say that between her and my brother, who was nothing short of sadistic, I had a pretty toxic and abusive upbringing. In order to stay safe, I tried to be “the good girl,” or “the good little sister.” No matter how “good” I was, the abuse continued, even into adulthood.
The above photo of me was taken before inspection for church one Sunday morning. Heaven forbid I should have a hair out of place, a spot of dirt on my gloves or a scuff mark on my saddle shoes. Punishment was harsh for my tender soul; the insults and shame that were crammed down my throat were worse than the physical consequences. The soul-destroying words echoed through my head for decades and can still rear their ugly little heads from time to time.
The issue of perfectionism and not being lovable fed right into the hands of every dysfunctional or sociopathic partner I had. That’s exactly what they want; they look for someone who is desperate to be loved, someone who feels unworthy and undeserving of anything good. So they can treat you like cr** and you’ll take it. You’ll give up your control and your power in exchange for a few crumbs of something they tell you is love. And you believe them.
If you’re here and reading this, chances are you can relate.
What Does Perfectionism Look Like?
I remember when I was studying homeopathy. There were approximately 160 assignments in the four-year program. I got an “A” on every one of them – except two, where I got an “A-“. I was horrified. “I don’t do A-!” I said. We were allowed to re-do assignments, so I took the instructor’s comments on board, redid the two assignments and got an A in each of them, finishing with perfect marks.
When I studied social work, my GPA was a perfect 4.0. I was terrified of getting anything less, and the pressure mounted with every exam, every grade given, every final report. Could I continue with my flawless grades? Could I carry on with that perfect 4.0? How long before I would get an A- in something and mess it up?
It didn’t happen. I maintained the 4.0. But the fear and anxiety were ridiculous and just got worse as time went on. My classmates knew about my grades because they were always posted outside the instructors’ doors. Some expressed their envy; the pressure mounted with every assignment, every exam, in every class, and I was terrified to slip and face the comments of my classmates. I couldn’t believe it was possible to continue getting such great marks.
But I did. And I paid a high price. It was unbearably stressful and just got worse over time.
And the stupid thing is, I never expect anyone else to be perfect. Like with my children, for example. If they could all just look me in the eye and say they’d done their best, I was happy with whatever their grades were. It was the same with everyone else on the planet. I’d cut everybody else a ton of slack—but not myself.
There was something really wrong with that picture, not the least of which was the fact that I had a clear case of Double Standards, something I detest in anyone else. Never mind the fact that I was on the short end of the stick, it was still a double standard. One set of rules for myself, and another for everyone else.
Just when did I become so special as to deserve my own rules? Especially rules that did me down? Now that’s a problem.
Each of us is special, of course, in terms of being unique. But we deserve equal treatment. And I was not treating myself with the same kindness or respect as I treated everyone else.
I was always telling other people that no one ever gets up in the morning and says, “Hey! I have a great idea! Today, I think I’ll do less than my best!” Oh, no. I was always telling them that whatever our circumstances are on any given day, we’re doing our best, with that amount of sleep, in that state of health, with whatever is happening that day, we always do our best.
And if everybody else’s “best” was good enough, then mine had to be, too. Their best didn’t have to be perfect and I was darned well gonna have to choke down the fact that mine didn’t have to be perfect, either.
How Do You Stop?
So how do you stop a need for perfection? A little at a time. It starts by understanding the roots of perfectionism in your own life.
I remember when I began to let myself off the hook. Slowly, at first, but I did it. I quit worrying about a lot of little things that had to be “just so” at home or in my life. I threw a lot of those things into the pile of stuff that went with my huge Life Lesson of “Letting Go.” Don’t get me wrong; I felt it. This wasn’t easy. It was a deliberate effort to leave things crooked or “good enough” or not exactly how I wanted them to be. But I forced myself and discovered that the earth didn’t stop spinning after all, and my brains didn’t fly out my ears and nothing else happened other than eventually, I really didn’t care so much (or at all) about those things.
I began to let go of worrying about what other people would think if I hadn’t done this or had forgotten to do that, or couldn’t be bothered with the other. I started to just be me, doing my best, whatever that meant on any given day.
Once I got rid of my impossible expectations of myself, and I no longer gave a rat’s @$$ about what anyone thought about what I did or didn’t do, my stress level dropped significantly. The energy I used to waste on worrying about such things was being put to much better use.
I still have my perfectionistic tendencies though, but not in a way that hurts me. It shows up in my writing, for example, but I don’t think that’s unreasonable or unhealthy. I just want to keep improving as a writer. This is my livelihood as well as my greatest passion. I want to throw everything I can at it and do my best during the time I have left on this planet.
One place being perfectionistic was completely pointless was that crooked pictures on walls used to drive me nuts. I used to be compelled to fix them, but now I can actually leave an office or restaurant or someone’s home where crooked pictures exist and I don’t come apart at the seams. I notice and shrug. Who gives a rat’s @$$? Not me.
One area where I could not seem to let that go was in putting my dinner plates the “right” way on the table. It was the Heartland set of dinnerware (you can Google it) and there was a picture on the dishes with a little house and animals etc. To put a plate so the picture was crooked was like hanging a landscape sideways. I just couldn’t do it! Even knowing there would be food all over the plate, I had to put it the right way because once the food was gone, the picture would be seen with the house tilted sideways, or maybe upside down. Nope, had to have it straight. Perhaps it was just the artist in me (a good excuse but I know it was the perfectionist).
It wasn’t hurting me or anyone else to be picky about that; my family tolerated it and just called it one of my quirks. They humoured me, too, which I appreciated.
I haven’t had that set of dishes for about ten years. I’ve changed and healed such a lot since then so I suspect it wouldn’t bother me anymore. In fact, as I think about it, I’m pretty sure I could put those plates down any old way and be just fine about it.
How Do You Know If You’ve Healed?
I’ve been on my own for several years. It was a deliberate choice to so I could do a thorough dive into the relationships I’ve had with sociopaths or otherwise unhealthy partners. I’ve had a good, long look at how dreadfully damaging those relationships were on pretty much all levels from the mental and emotional to the physical and financial. I’d been chipping away at it for a couple of decades but still I kept finding myself in the same traps. After the last relationship, I had to figure it out and heal those wounds once and for all.
So that’s what I’ve been doing by deepening my spiritual work, becoming a mindfulness meditation expert (this alone has made a massively positive impact), and especially by developing a truly respectful and loving relationship with myself, and learning to appreciate myself and all I have to offer. I know I’ll never tolerate another toxic relationship. I’ve had a few test-drives with some dating in the past handful of years and at the first sign of toxic behaviour, control issues, displays of temper or manipulation, I’m out. I used to excuse and minimise those behaviours. Now I see them for what they are: symptoms of sociopathic tendencies and I’d rather be alone and happy than with someone and trapped in another dysfunctional nightmare.
During these years, I’ve been amazed at how many of those quirky perfectionistic traits have vanished. I suppose it’s because I’ve finally healed those original wounds of not feeling lovable or good enough. I don’t have those feelings anymore at all and I’m quite happy that I let go of my ridiculous expectations for myself. I enjoy the freedom, now, to simply do and be my best and know that it’s plenty good enough.
If people will only love me or be my friend if I’m perfect, then it’s not real love or friendship. In fact, that is toxic and I want no part of it. The problem lies with them, not me. I may have started out with some deep-seated abandonment or “Please love me” issues that led my need for perfection, but I didn’t heal it by counting on other people’s own emotional wounds and judgment to help me.
There is no such thing as perfect, and the irony is that a need for perfection means I’m setting myself up for failure—the very thing I feared, and that made me want to be perfect in the first place.
Thank heaven I was able to understand the deep-seated roots of those behaviours, and that they’re the reason I kept finding unhealthy relationships and sociopaths. Thank heaven I was able to reach a place of self-love and self-acceptance that has finally allowed me to heal in a way that brings me peace on all levels and I can finally say that I’m happy just doing and being my best.
Does this resonate with you? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.
This article was originally published at LibertyForrest.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.