On Perfectionism

“We need to talk to you about the last meeting” my boss and his boss were in a small huddle room, and they shut the door behind me. My stomach started to churn. Now, what!? In this particular meeting, I had sat like a good girl keeping my mouth shut. I took notes, I didn’t offer any opinions, just answered direct questions. As far as I was concerned, I had done everything I could to keep it together despite the difficult relationships within the team. “They said you looked angry the whole time.” My female-engineer feminism flared. Areyoukiddingme? They’re worried about my demeanor? Why am I in trouble? What about the other guy who kept challenging the partner’s consultant? I did what every self-respecting person in this position does. Burst into tears. Angry, frustrated tears. (Ok, not every person does that). We sat in the office for an eternity while I cried, pointing out all the ways that the partner and the consultant weren’t playing by the rules and was told it didn’t matter, what mattered was how I was communicating. I took a sick day and left the office angry and feeling broken. I had checked all the boxes and was considered one of the most technically proficient people in my office. What happened?

More than 20 years prior I stepped onto an engineering college campus with “Get a technical degree, history can be your hobby” running through my head. “You’re good in math and science, you should be an engineer, you’ll be guaranteed a job” is what I heard. “But I hate math! I stare at the page and my head spins, I can’t figure it out! I must be stupid.” Putting my head down I plowed through the coursework and eventually ended up with the degree. I wasn’t the smartest, I didn’t have the highest grades, I didn’t even have a 3.0 GPA, but I got through it. My superpower was perseverance with a dash of tunnel-vision, which led to not thinking about what I’d rather be learning, just that I had to complete this one thing.

I wasn’t going to let that hard-fought degree go to waste and I threw myself into building a career. “I’m not going to be like one of those women who get an engineering degree then do nothing with it!” Judgment, shame, and perfectionism kept me hostage. All I knew was that I should always strive to be perfect and to hide all my flaws and faults.

Remember the head spins looking at math problems? Those never went away, except now the head spins would come in important meetings where I thought I had to have all the answers and when I didn’t, I’d beat myself up, vowing to show up the next time better prepared. The beating up extended to members of my project teams. You can’t be the person who is beating yourself up and be an effective leader. Perfectionism requires you to blame someone else even as you yourself are engulfed in shame.

Perfectionism drove depression. The shame of being a depressed person pushed it further down. By the time I found the right therapist, I had been depressed for a very long time and compensated by developing a thick suit of perfectionist armor.

That may have been the day the lightbulb came on, or at the least the day a little candle flicker of light came into my awareness. I wasn’t broken, merely out of alignment. I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer and yet, here I was more than 20 years into an engineering career trying to make it work because that’s what I knew to do. Make it work even if I didn’t like it.

Therapy helped me uncover, uproot and start building something new. People showed up to shake me up and didn’t take no for an answer, pushing me to see myself the way they saw me. Or rather, what they saw under all that armor. I finally started to feel, and holy crap that was uncomfortable. Feel? Why would I want to do that? Feeling emotions led to crying in front of strangers! But with the crying came something else, compassion, empathy, and a sense I wasn’t alone.

These days, I’m taking antidepressant medication. There was a stint of being able to stop taking medication, then 2020 happened. Medication is a tool. So is therapy, coaching, meditation, yoga, and surrounding myself with people who get it. Sometimes I still slide into the abyss and I judge the hell out of it. But there’s nothing wrong. I’m not broken, I’m just moving through another thing. Perseverance is still there and still my superpower coupled with intuition. Perfectionism still rears its head too, but at least I know what it is and what it isn’t. (Hint: It’s not going to move me forward).

In experiencing burnout, I uncovered what I love to do. I’m not saying everyone needs to experience burnout to change something, I just know that as deep as I was into the grips of perfectionism and depression, I needed a whack to change. A definitive, this isn’t working.

This post is in support of World Mental Health Day

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