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Fighting The "Perfection" Disease

[ 9 ] October 6, 2010 |
The Secret Life of Plastic People

Image by MoonSoleil via Flickr

Perhaps you’ve heard about the disease called “perfection”? Dan Pearce wrote about it here on his blog, Single Dad Laughing. The post has gone viral, and with good reason: it contains a much-needed message. If you haven’t read it yet, please do.

The idea is that way too many people, maybe most of us, maybe even all of us, are so busy being perfect-on-the-outside plastic shell people, we’re afraid to face the realities of our lives, let alone admit them to others. Your spouse mistreats you, you’re over your head in debt, you drink too much, you’re depressed, you hate your body… but you can’t let anyone guess anything is wrong because they might not like you or respect you. That’s the disease called “perfection.” It isolates people. It makes them feel wrong and bad and alone. Sometimes, it makes them give up altogether.

The fact is, nobody is perfect, everybody suffers, and we all have messes in our lives. I know this only too well, and I’m going to share my story, even though it’s personal, in hopes that everyone who reads this will be encouraged to face their own truths. That’s the only way to fix any of this.

For most of my life, I was convinced that the way to be safe was never to show anyone the “ugly” side of me. Even with my closest friends and family, I always spun the self and life I presented, to make sure it made me look good. I never cried in front of people if I could possibly help it—even alone, I fought so hard against crying, I always ended up with a huge headache, whether I actually cried or not. And all the while I was making sure nobody saw the real me, I was resentful that nobody understood me.

Here’s the thing: if you never let people see the real you, you can never have a deep relationship with anyone. This idea scared the living hell out of me, and I fought it pretty hard, but reality is persistent. Eventually, it makes itself known.

I realized that I was miserable. You can never relax when you’re pretending, and I was very busy pretending (and trying with all my might) to have a perfect life and be a perfect person. I hated my job and couldn’t concentrate or think. I was miserable in my marriage: my husband belittled me but cleverly used church teachings to shame me if I had any complaints or wanted to do anything other than what he wanted me to do. I could never measure up to the standards of a saint, and those are the standards to which I was holding myself. I felt incompetent and weak, and I was afraid people would find out how lacking I was in all respects and laugh at me or hate me. And it seemed all the worse for the fact that my life was so good on the surface. I had a big, pretty house; a prestigious and well-paying job at a university; and a husband who called me “sweetheart” and was always doing things for me. How could I possibly justify complaining when I was so lucky?

The fact remained, though, I was miserable. I freaked out at the drop of a hat, and the tiniest thing was enough to send me into a fit of rage, anxiety, or desolation. I was losing all ability to cope.

Broken heart

Image by bored-now via Flickr

Oddly, what snapped me out of it was drugs. It was a prescription, not the illegal kind, but I still don’t recommend this approach! I had a bad allergic reaction and was put on steroids, and they kept me from sleeping more than three hours a night. Either the drugs or the lack of sleep, or both, shut down the denial and bullshit factories in my head, and I was no longer able to delude myself about anything. Whoa! My marriage was not meeting my needs, and even though I had taken vows in the church, I wanted out. I was doing a terrible job at work and should find another career before I got fired. I was trying to start a business but felt like a huge fraud and failure-waiting-to-happen at that, too. And I so hated for my mother-in-law to turn out to have been right when she predicted I’d dump her son, I was actually considering waiting until she died to do it.

Well, I waited until I was off the steroids to make sure it wasn’t all a hallucination, but I knew it wasn’t. Then I started doing something about it. I think this is the number one reason we delude ourselves and stick with things that obviously aren’t right for us: if we admit it’s not working, we’ll have to do something about it, and that’s hard.

It is hard, and it can be miserable, but compared to the misery of the faux life, it’s very refreshing. And you know what? I was sure everyone at church would hate me for initiating a divorce, especially when they all liked my husband and he was very devoted and seemingly ideal on the surface. But they didn’t. I shocked myself by bursting into tears and sobbing loudly in public when one of my friends asked how I was doing—I think that’s the first time I cried in public since second grade on the school bus when all the other kids made fun of me for crying and called me a baby. My friends were nothing but supportive and loving. It turns out nobody judged me nearly as harshly as I was judging myself.

Meanwhile, I had lived the “perfection” lie so long, there were many times I didn’t know what I really liked, thought, felt, or wanted. I had pretended so long, I was out of practice with reality. But if you wait and listen, the truth will come to you, especially if it’s a truth about yourself. You have to be patient and really want to know, which may require an act of will at first.

As I practiced being real with myself, I was also experimentally showing the unflattering side of myself to my best friend and my sister. With each tiny revelation, I cringed and waited for the axe to drop. This was extremely scary for me—I was risking my entire support system on an idea that was a total reversal from how I thought life worked. But the axe never did drop; in fact, my relationships deepened. Looking back, I’d say there are two reasons for this: I wasn’t fooling anyone nearly as much as I thought with my act, and the people who liked me liked the real me even more.

I had two old friends who had each been among the top five most important people to me ever but then quit speaking to me, and each suddenly resumed contact. Could I show them my real self, too, when they’d dropped me so hard before? Well, by this time, I was convinced that being real was the way to go, and I decided I wouldn’t go back to the act for them or anybody. They’re both still speaking to me, and one became closer than we’d ever been.

In short, being real with myself and everyone around me was extremely scary at first, maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it has also been the most important thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think it’s possible to be truly happy without doing this. I’ve been at it roughly two years now, and I can say for certain, it has given me two of the greatest gifts in the world: closer relationships with my friends and family, and peace. I’m no longer at war with myself trying to pretend or make myself into something I’m not–I can just be me.

I’d like to end this post here, but it seems like cheating that my only revelations are stuff from the past, as if I were perfect now. I have worked really hard at being real, but I still have some things I don’t like admitting. Here goes.

  • I’m insecure. I need approval from others waaaay too much.
  • I like autocross, but I’m not a good driver.
  • I still don’t really know what I want to do with my life.
  • I’m probably falling for some kind of get-rich-quick trick on the internet.
  • I have no idea what unique thing only I can offer the universe.
  • I’m horrible at drawing, and I’m not very creative.
  • I’m a sloppy housekeeper.
  • I hate being asked a lot of questions, but I also hate when people don’t do things my way.
  • I’m scared a lot.
  • I don’t know what to believe about God or any of the religion stuff I used to be so sure of.
  • I don’t know how to fix computers or how to network them, I don’t program for fun, and I’m behind the times on basically every computer-related technology. In short, I lack all computer geek cred. (Why is this a problem? I have a PhD in computer science. I should know everything!)
  • I hate puzzles and thinking problems because I’m afraid I’ll get the answer wrong, and that will prove that I’m stupid.
  • I think mean thoughts about people I don’t know because of their looks or clothes.
  • Unless I force myself, I tend to avoid doing things I’m not already good at because I still hate not being perfect or letting other people see I don’t know everything.

I hope you’ll make your own list, even if you’re not yet ready to share it. For inspiration, be sure to read the original post on the “perfection” disease and this one on the cure. Being real is scary but so worth it.

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (9)

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  1. ed says:

    I can relate sooooo much…you are brave (not foolish) to send this out to the world – to those of us still stuck in what may feel like hopeless situations we don’t have the courage to change.

    I feel quite real now, but still feel trapped inside a constraint of “responsibilities and obligations and shoulds” that I can’t figure an easy way out of. I fear I am just looking for the easy way out.

    Thank you Cara! : )

    • Cara says:

      Thanks, Ed! And good for you already being real!

      As for responsibilities and obligations and shoulds, that can be tough. If you can, I recommend looking at each one and considering whether it’s really of value to you, and quitting the ones that are not. Ex. doing stuff for your wife or kids, maybe you don’t exactly want to do it but find worthwhile because you love them. But for the stuff that’s not like that, that doesn’t contribute in some way to your goals for your life, remember that you’re allowed to change your mind, and there are other people who could be doing almost anything you don’t want to do.

  2. Honour says:

    Hi Cara,
    I’ve just been looking at an article by Ethan on Cloud Coach(Ethan helps people who have techno blocks!),and it reminded me about how we create our own reality with our attitude.When you look at your long list above Cara, please cringe at what you are creating for yourself! :[
    I had the same thoughts as you have re computer technology, and it stopped me in my tracks for years. Just this past month I did a blogging bootcamp, and when the inevitable techno glitch came up, I vowed to persevere instead of giving up like I always did. It was really stressful, and really hard, but the result is that I now have a blogsite! I’m ecstatic!
    I really love your blog. I’m 70, and if I live to be 90, I’ve only got 7,150 days left! I envy you your 16,604! ;]

    • Cara Stein says:

      Hi Honour! Thanks for writing, and good for your for taking action! When I talk to people in their 50s, most of them say “Oh, that sounds so morbid! I could never do the “days left” calculation because I’m afraid of what I might find out!” I say better to find out and start doing something about it!

      I should probably do a follow-up on this post, because a lot has happened since I wrote this. I agree with you, the list above is wretched, and I was so intimidated and scared of everything when I wrote it! Since then, I’ve been doing all kinds of things I was afraid to try. I’ve started approaching the technology stuff as an opportunity to learn and grow instead of proof that I’m inadequate, and I’ve changed my view from “people are scary” to “people are nice”–those are the two biggest things. Also, I stopped worrying about The One great thing I’m supposed to be doing with my life and started focusing on something I love (writing and building this blog). If it turns out later that I love something else more, I’ll switch my focus to that, but meanwhile, I’m learning to accept not knowing all the answers.

      Trying scary stuff is so great. Well, it feels awful at first, but it has such a self-building momentum! I’m finding it really exhilarating.

      Thanks again for writing! I’ll be looking forward to checking out your site when it’s ready! :)

  3. Caroline Harper says:

    Hi Cara,

    What an inspirational read, I’m currently where you were and it scares me literally to death! I’m about to separate from an eight year marriage and twelve year relationship … a wonderful kind gentle loving man , so why am I unhappy ? I’m not 100% sure but what I am sure about is that I need to find out!

    Your story has given me a little courage to take the steps , I just hope I remember everyday how life could be and not step back into what it has been , unfulfilling

    Caroline

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Caroline! Congratulations on facing your unhappiness and taking action. It may be a bumpy road, but I wish you all the best in finding fulfillment. It’s so worth the struggle.

  4. […] pride myself on being open, being congruent, being real. I used to do the opposite, being careful to hide everything about me that I thought others might […]

  5. Cila says:

    “Unless I force myself, I tend to avoid doing things I’m not already good at because I still hate not being perfect or letting other people see I don’t know everything.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth. Only in the past couple years have I begun to realise how much I’ve shortchanged myself by being afraid to be less-than-perfect. It’s still a struggle but I’m working on pushing out of my comfort zone. Courage!

  6. Rachel says:

    Oh boy, this sooo resonates with me.
    Over 7 years ago now I chose to leave a job I loved and was very comfortable doing to support my husband in a new business venture. On one hand BIG mistake. We lost the business in the credit crunch, we were not established enough to ride out the crisis and selling high end luxury products was one of the firs things people stopped purchasing. We’re still paying business debts off now and have very little disposable income but the light is at the end of the tunnel.
    On the other hand I had to visit areas in my life I was not at all happy with….I had to sell! (I was a Nursery Nurse for goodness sake) I had to do accounts (a fear of numbers from primary school). So on the face of it not good!! But sell I did and accounts I did too!! I developed skills I didn’t know I had, I gained confidence I’d never ever had, I leapt over hurdles that were always far to high to even attempt.
    Now I work as an Office manager, with a company that turn over and profit that would please any company owner and I deal with all of the accounts, payroll etc.
    I’m not happy any longer and want to train in Holistic Therapy and rather than think…..I can’t do it, I’m not clever enough, I don’t have the confidence I have met challenges head on before that had cost me in my health, due to nerves and fear and anxiety…..this time I can and will do it and will enjoy my working life once again.
    The challenges out there are to be met, dealing with them does cause huge anxiety but my oh my, it’s worth it…DO IT

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