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Going into recovery… for perfectionism

By August 28, 2022September 3rd, 2022No Comments



Alana Kirk is an author, a mid-life coach for women and a recovering perfectionist, who says trying to be all things to all people effectively ruined her life


I was amazing. No really, I was.

I wore yummy mummy Boden-bright clothes, and with babies at breast, made organic ice-cube trays of spinach and sweet potato. And the birthday parties? Epic, themed extravaganzas. I even made the cakes. Not ordinary cakes; Rapunzel, hair toppling out the castle, Olaf laughing, a singing cake. Yep, Sophia sang to my daughter as I brought the cake in (a singing doll with the cake as her skirt.) The Facebook photos were amazing.

What no-one saw was the desperate, exhausted tears at 1am as I frantically iced the lace on that skirt, after stuffing the goody bags, blown up the balloons, put the girls to bed, cleared up the dinner, made the dinner, done the homework, barely squeezing in a work deadline because I’d sewn the lavender pouches for the goody bags (yes, I hand MADE the goody bag presents).

If I did everything perfectly, no-one would see how incompetent I felt. I’m many things; silly girl, serious woman, adventurer, creative, dreamer, doer. But the umbrella above all of those identities was perfectionist. I’m so glad to say was. When my life fell apart – in the space of nine months I lost my mother and my marriage – as a perfectionist, this seemingly lack of control was particularly distressing. Somehow, I should have done better.

But in the process of picking myself up from the rubble of my life, the most important decision I made was to go into recovery for the perfectionism that had ruined that life. When I picked up the pieces I wanted to retain, I tried to leave behind the things that hadn’t worked. I’d thought it mattered that I did everything myself, that I hid the struggle to juggle being so many things to so many people. But the promise of ‘having it all’ turned out to be a curse of just doing it all.

Perfection isn’t just about doing everything perfectly. Sometimes it’s about just doing everything. When I was caring for three small kids and ageing parents, I wouldn’t even buy a packet of biscuits because I thought baked was better and everything was on my shoulders. I thought I constantly ‘should’.  When I began to slowly rebuild, when I learned to ask for help, when I saw that what was more important than how I looked was how I felt, when I began to invest time on my input not just my output, when I began to ask ‘what do I need?’ as well as ‘what do I need to do?’, I realised how perfectionism had stunted my growth.

“Perfectionism is a trait that is characterised primarily by striving for flawlessness,” says family therapist Dervil O’Reilly, “While it drives people to establish high goals and put in extra effort, it can also take rather negative forms, leading people to aim for impossibly high standards while frequently also being too critical. It is also linked to a number of mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression.”

In the first year after my marriage ended, and my mum died, I did the performance of perfection so much that my body eventually had to get a megaphone to get my mind to pay attention. My mind was running on overdrive: If I keep moving, keep doing everything well, (with a smile!), ignoring the fact I just wanted to lie down and just tell everyone to fuck off for a while, it kept going. Kept trying, kept performing, kept up the smile, because anger is not an accessory that looks good on a woman. No, women are ‘meant’ to smile, get over it, get on with it, keep packing the school lunches, baking the buns, keeping it going, because we’re not raised to let go. We are raised to go, regardless of how we feel.

Eventually my body staged a coup and shut down, the poison of perfection running through my veins until I collapsed in a fevered heap.

Women are confused because of a triple whammy of expectations. The first is the pressure to be good at all the traditionally female stuff: be nurturing, kind, understanding; place othersneeds above our own; throw themed birthday parties; maintain an immaculate, on-trend home, freezer packed with nourishing meals; dress with a nod to fashion; work out and meditate. Were expected to be wonderful wives, marvellous mothers and fabulous friends, while also caring for our ageing parents, dancing like nobodys watching and making our homes plastic-free.

The second pressure is to do all of that while also now being good at the traditionally male stuff, smashing the glass ceiling in non-laddered tights: get great grades, amazing jobs, kick ass in sport, and run the household budget on a colour-coded spreadsheet. This means being strong (physically, emotionally and mentally) so we can lead, manage, mentor, control, assert and direct, which places us in a confusing challenge to also be nurturing, kind and co-operative. When we’re expected to fulfil contradictory roles at the same time, it places us in constant turmoil. No matter what we excel at, were failing at something. In the early nineties Dr. Mary Pipher revealed how this double bind was devastating to the mental health of women and girls. Twenty years later, Hinshaw and Kranz describe in their book The Triple Bind: Saving our teenage girls from todays pressures and conflicting expectations, that there is now a third bind: the expectation that our value is somehow linked to how well we conform to an ever-narrowing standard of thin, hot, and sexy (while making it look effortless).

Id always believed that putting others first and pretending I was coping was what I was meant to do. But that wasnt what was best for me. I had to take the chance people would love me for me, even if I bought a packet of biscuits, or scraped back some greasy hair into a ponytail.

The most radical self-love I have learned was to allow myself to be vulnerable, ask for help when I needed it, stop putting my external perfection before my internal needs, and to start mattering in my own life. Perfectionism stunts your life. Progress, in whatever state, is the only way we move, evolve, learn, fail and grow, try, experiment, play for the sake of joy, not for the goal of an end result and is what will make us happy.

I’ve learned to sit in the discomfort of not being good at something, just to experience the joy of trying something. I’ve learned to let go of crippling expectations of what should be, and try and enjoy what is.

With three daughters, I also have a responsibility to role model that the only way to be ‘successful’ is not just to be hanging on by your fingernails. I need to role mode that I get it wrong and then apologise, failing and being curious about what that teaches me. I need to role model being an arsehole, and then owning my shit and not blaming anyone else. I need to role model not smiling when I don’t want to, and being angry when it serves me without apologising. I need to really stop giving a damn about what others think and worry more about what I think. I need to role model and be happy being ‘perfectly’ flawed.

Alana Kirk