Guest Blog Post by Caroline McGraw
Oh honey, I know what you’re like.
You are a driven, high-achieving woman trying so very hard to be perfect. You have a staggering helping of responsibilities on your plate.
You’re the conscientious planner, the purposeful worker, Superwoman saving the day. You’re the go-to person for your friends and family.
You’re the one who remembers everyone’s birthdays – and you’re also the one who reminds others who are prone to forget. You devote a great deal of time and energy to keeping it all together.
You tell yourself all the time that you have a great life. But then, why are you secretly unhappy? Why are you restless and tired, enervated and exhausted?
What’s Behind the Mask of Perfectionism
Here’s why: because the person inhabiting your “great life” isn’t really you. It’s a role that you play, a mask that you wear. I should know. You’re who I used to see when I looked in the mirror.
I thought it was my job to be everything to everyone. I thought that my value and worth depended on me doing everything exactly right … so I did my level best to do just that.
As Dawn illustrated so poignantly in her post Five Years Later, it’s easy to deny and rationalize hyper-driven behavior. After all, it nets us so much approval!
But you and I both know it goes deeper than that. The problem of perfectionism may seem complex, but it’s really quite simple.
The real reason you need it all to be perfect is that you’re in pain.
The Sneaky Self-Hate Spiral
Most people don’t realize that addiction and perfectionism actually go hand in hand. In fact, perfectionistic attitudes often drive addictive behaviors (that is, compulsive, reward-based actions that we engage in despite the toll they take on our health and wellbeing).
Perfectionism convinces us that we’re not worthy, that we should step back from what we really want and who we really are. “Don’t think that, say that, do that. Be the Good Girl, no matter how much it hurts. Play it safe. Everyone will be better off that way.”
Perfectionism is a phony fortune-teller, convincing us that it’s our job to protect beloved people from our true selves. It tells us to hide away the parts of ourselves that are messy or complicated or, well, human.
The bad news is that hiding in this way is debilitating. It’s a sneaky self-hate spiral.
Some perfectionists abuse drugs and alcohol, while others abuse work and exercise and Google Calendar. Some addictive behaviors land you in jail, while others are socially acceptable.
But the core issues of self-harm and self-rejection are the same.
Facing and Healing Your Underlying Core Issues
It takes courage to confront the underlying issues driving our addictive behaviors. It takes strength to look at our depression, anxiety, self-loathing, and hopelessness rather than shying away.
The good news is that the pain of avoiding those core issues is actually worse than the pain of meeting them head-on. And once we start healing the hurt that’s driving our addictive behaviors, we can recover for real.
I was fortunate; thanks to my work as a copywriter for a dual diagnosis Non 12 Step residential addiction treatment center, I learned how to heal the depression and anxiety that drove my perfectionism. I learned how to question my judgments and limiting beliefs and work with my addict aspect.
In treatment, my fellow Participants and I practiced taking current emotional reactions and riding them back in time. For example, when I followed the energy of my people-pleasing back, I arrived at the day that my younger brother Willie was diagnosed with autism.
Though I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, I knew that our mom was upset and I yearned to comfort her. What began as an innocent desire to help grew into the false belief that it was my job to manage other people’s emotions and “make” them happy.
When I offered compassion to the little girl that I was, my old compulsions lost their power. I felt myself getting stronger on every level. I sensed that I had a real shot at a new life.
Take Ferris’s Advice: Don’t Believe in Isms
Perfectionism, workaholism … these “isms” have the power to take over our lives if we let them. It brings to mind that great line in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
“It’s not that I condone fascism, or any ‘ism’ for that matter. Ism’s, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ‘ism,’ he should believe in himself.”
When we engage in workaholism and perfectionism, we are putting our faith in a certain behavior to save us.
What we are really saying is, “I can’t handle knowing what I know and feeling what I feel, so I’m going to do some other work instead.”
And then we make that other work really hard, both to distract ourselves and to punish ourselves for having “bad” thoughts and feelings.
But what if we believed more in ourselves than in our “isms”? What if we stopped the sneaky self-hate and offered ourselves love and forgiveness instead?
Then I think we’d like the women we’d see in the mirror.
Caroline Garnet McGraw is the creator of A Wish Come Clear, a blog devoted to helping recovering “good girl” perfectionists get past perfect and rise up real. Visit and receive your free Recovery Toolkit. Caroline also serves as the senior copywriter for The Clearing, a 12 Step Alternative residential addiction treatment program especially for individuals with Dual Diagnosis.