Monday, July 6, 2009

Stress lovers: You know you're out there

I've got a little idea about the natural-born perfectionist: We thrive on stress.

Thriving and stress seem to be at odds with each other, right? To thrive means to "grow vigorously," according to Merriam-Webster online. And stress is defined as a constraining force or influence.

But, for someone who wants, or needs, to achieve perfection, you're already kind of a self-hater -- because when you really stop and think about it, nothing can be perfect -- so to live on stress kind of makes sense. In a sick, perfection-seeking sort of way, that is.

I'm pretty sure most type A's/perfectionists/over-achievers think that despite how impossible it is to attain, we should still be striving for perfect, and that getting that much closer every time is worth the pain/aggravation/struggle.

But what does trying to achieve something impossible result in? Stress, obviously. But as obvious as that is, or should be, we do it over, and over again. (I think this behavior also fits into the category of insane. But, I digress.)

Since our natural propensity is to keep pushing ourselves to make things (our work, our knowledge of current events, our bodies, our relationships) as close to perfect as we can get, it's got to be, more likely than not, our natural state to feel stressed. If we're always aiming for the unattainable, can we ever not feel stressed?

I think it's a safe bet to say most of the perfectionists out there generally are usually feeling like crap. And largely from the things going on in our own heads, telling us how imperfect we are.

"Why didn't I work harder on that report?"

"Why can't I lose those last 5 pounds?"

"Why don't I spend more time with my significant other/best friend/family?"

With all of this negativity swirling around in our minds, stress is the natural order of things for us. We're used to feeling like garbage, like we better get up and get going or we'll never do anything worthwhile.

And this is how a person becomes a stress thriver. It's how the perfectionist, or over-achiever, is used to feeling. Take the stress away and we don't know what to do with ourselves.

I'm willing to bet that many people who realize they're perfectionists would also describe themselves as the type of people who can't sit still. Not all perfectionists, but a bunch. I certainly feel this way a lot. (I remember friends in high school thinking there was something seriously wrong with me, or them, because whatever we were doing at the time wasn't fun/exciting/productive enough. Sorry about that.)

As I think more about the sitting still issue, though, I'm realizing most of the time I can sit still just fine when I'm alone, but add anyone else to the house, and I'm a nut.

Hmmm, what could this mean? Is this perfectionism something that's just in our own heads, or is it tied up in worries about how others are perceiving us as well? (People pleasing will have to be another post entirely. But just really quickly -- it's a sham. Stop it now. No one else is even noticing. Trust me.)

So, are we driving ourselves crazy just to answer the harsh words in our heads, or for the fear of hearing those same harsh words from someone else?

I think it's a mix of both for some of us, maybe one or the other for the rest.

If you're trying to do things perfectly for someone else though, get ready to wait a long, long time for that someone else to even realize what you're going through to do it.

And if you're doing it just for you, stop and think about whether you've ever even been satisfied with an unnecessarily stress-filled accomplishment. And was it worth it? Or, in the end, did you think to yourself, "Why did I get so worked up about that? Especially since it didn't turn out perfect anyway ..." (Because it can't, of course.)

I have a feeling more than a few of my fellow perfectionists have looked back at their crazy stressed-out behavior at one time or another and realized the same thing could have been accomplished with far less pain (and fewer weary looks from those close to you, I'm guessing).

I also have a feeling that sure enough, the stress cycle started right back up again the next time a similar task needed to be done.

For the perfectionist, stress is like a little safety blanket. The more we can cling on to it, the more we feel like we're giving it our all.

"If I get myself worked up into a tizzy, at least I'll know I exerted every ounce of my effort on this."

That's not what we're thinking -- because this nutso behavior is totally reflexive, not something we actively decide to do -- that's just what's going on in our subconscious to support this self-defeating behavior.

But tizzy or not, we're not gonna be perfect. So let's cut ourselves some slack. Let's be that super cool cucumber for just one usually stressful project or event, and see how it goes. What's more important in the end? Doing something "perfectly," or feeling perfectly great when you've gotten something done, and still have the energy to enjoy it?


  1. wow...great read for me this week. Did you write that for me specifically?! Thanks hun...needed that as usual. Have a good week. - love ya, Em

  2. Great post! I think this should be an excerpt from a self-help book for me :) Your preaching to the choir! I need to relax...