August 17, 2018

From Independent Thoughts: My civil war against perfectionism

I am a troubled human being. This is not satire because I am worried about what is happening to me. I do not find many things in this world to be frightening, but my life is on the line. I am a perfectionist. Some people might scoff at this and ignore its legitimacy. There is more to the story, however, that exposes a deep psychological schism found within myself.

I normally refrain from discussing something so personal, but this could potentially help someone who is dealing with the same thing. It is hard for an outsider to understand a perfectionist. They simply think it is an attitude problem, but I think it is much more serious than that. Most of the time, I consider myself a fraud because I cannot be the “ideal” person I desire to be or always achieve the desired results I wish to.

It is not just the simple unwillingness to fail and learn from mistakes. A perfectionist can actually be scared to fail and believe nothing positive comes from making even the most minor mistake. I am not scared to fail, I am terrified at the prospect of it. Being a perfectionist has a platform of its own, and nobody is allowed to challenge its power.

These thoughts constantly swirl around in my mind. There is a civil war, as a result, between the two versions of “Christian Hargas” taking place. In one corner is the “Christian Hargas” who is thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring and determined to be excellent. In the other corner is the “Christian Hargas” who is constantly frustrated, relentless about being a “knower” rather than a “learner,” polarizing and fearful. For the last five years, this has been my life.

I became something I am not proud of: a troubled human being. I alienated loved ones for periods of time because I scared them. I frustrated close and distant friends because they were worried about my mindset. I irritated colleagues because I did work “by my own rules,” which went against the mandate. All in the name of trying to be the “ideal” person and achieve the “perfect” results.

Perfectionism makes life much harder than it needs to be. The “real world” is already difficult enough. Why make things more challenging? According to the American Psychological Association, the need to “be perfect” comes in many different forms and each one has its own set of problems.

In addition, Paul Hewitt, PhD, argues that the need to “be perfect” is not adaptive in any way. This goes against the idea that perfectionism can serve as a way to motivate people toward reaching ambitious goals. I once thought the latter statement to be true, and still do in some ways. However, five years into this “civil war” exposed me to negative side effects such as anxiety and depression. Psychologist Gordon Flett agrees that perfectionism correlates with these negative side effects, along with others such as eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.

My war against perfectionism is profoundly apparent in my college work. I recently participated in an activity sponsored by the Centre for Clinical Interventions. I took a test titled Perfectionism in Perspective with the intention of learning more. The test helped me identify the fields where my perfectionism is the worst: work, study and organization. My career in higher education is a testament to understanding the good, the bad and the ugly of trying to be spotless.

Part of Hewitt’s research included a story about a university student he worked with. The student was convinced he needed to earn an A+ in a particular class. The student became more depressed and suicidal, following the completion of the class, even though he earned the grade he wanted. The student said the A+ was a demonstration of how much of a failure he was because a “perfect” student would not need to work as hard to achieve that same result. I suppose it would come natural. Many of my A+ grades were followed by high levels of anxiety and frustration, but I was initially afraid to tell someone.

Professors must think it is tough to look at a perfectionist student and understand their way of thought. Perfectionism is not an easy concept to grasp, even for the ones who are affected by it. Webster University does their best to understand my situation, but I cannot expect them to know everything.

Perfectionism, according to Hewitt, Flett and their team of researchers, has important consequences for psychopathology, especially in the context of treatment, through the desire to perfectly present one’s self. It is difficult for me to disclose anything that makes me appear imperfect. I never wanted to appear as someone with flaws. However, I became a double edged sword because of it.

I admitted my perfectionism became a problem many years ago, but never said anything at first. I finally told the truth to my family, friends and colleagues about the anguish I face on a daily basis. I sought the necessary help and will continue to work with the appropriate resources. I still wonder if I can actually win this war.

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