I Am a Recovering Perfectionist
I am not afraid to admit it:
I am a recovering perfectionist.
Guest Author: Valarie Chan
As a Filipino-Asian American raised by a Tiger Mom, I can never just “be.” Almost everything must be perfect before I do anything.
What do I mean?
1. Before I sell my business, the books must look good.
2. Before I enter a relationship, I must be completely happy and whole.
3. Before I take on a client, I need to ensure that I have the perfect team to provide the best services.
So, the idea of spontaneity, the idea of going with the flow, doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.
Even writing this article was a bit difficult. Of course, I wanted to make the article “perfect” before I handed it over.
My perfectionism largely stems from my upbringing as the child of an Asian Tiger Mom. For those wondering “How bad can an Asian ‘Tiger Mom’ be?” let me just say you always, always must be at the top of your game.
Maybe you play an instrument and are a soloist who has played with the Boston Symphony. Maybe you were the valedictorian of your high school and got into Harvard. Maybe you are a doctor who successfully performed a new kind of heart surgery.
Well, that’s great, but none of it really matters because you know your mother will always find that fatal flaw—that one minor detail you didn’t get right that would make all the difference in the world.
For the instrumentalist, it’s that one wrong note. For the valedictorian, it’s that A-. For the heart surgeon, it’s that suture that could have been “perfect” but wasn’t quite right.
Whatever the flaw, you can be sure it will be pointed out to you—even when you outperform 99% of your peers and are ridiculously successful at whatever you decide to take up.
What I’m describing is that soul-crushing experience that pushes you to work even harder at being perfect, at being that much better, because she thinks that she’s being a good mom by “helping.” She’s providing “feedback.” She’s nitpicking because she loves you.
That, in a nutshell, is what it was like being raised by an Asian Tiger Mom and being taught to strive for perfection in grade school, in my teens, in my early 20s and even my early 30s.
To gain approval from my mother, I had to be the right type of daughter—one who listened, nodded, went to an acceptable school, chose an acceptable career, and did everything possible to fulfill the image of a perfect daughter. And eventually I began projecting this obsession with perfection on everyone around me, nitpicking and providing “feedback” until they were perfect, too.
But guess what? Perfectionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When I was 30, I seemed to have achieved the perfect life. I was married to an attractive and seemingly kind man, lived in a beautiful house overlooking the Puget Sound in one of the top neighborhoods in Seattle, owned a thriving business—and yet I looked in the mirror and hated what I saw.
I had lost the essence of me. I had traded a fun-loving, spontaneous and sometimes loud person for the image of perfection: the perfect wife with the perfect career who lived in the perfect neighborhood and was living the American dream.
But despite all the perfection in my life, I was still miserable, and I’m sure the people around me were miserable too. I was living a life that I didn’t really want to be in and married to a man that I didn’t even like.
So what did I do? I got out of that gilded cage and got divorced. I vowed to live a more robust and not so perfect life.
But being a perfectionist, all my life meant that recovery was more than a tad bit difficult. Although I appeared to recover quickly and “perfectly,” it wasn’t long before I began again to create an ideal life for myself, building a beautiful house, making a good living, striving for perfection in everything I did and seeming to be happy. But the gilded cage was still out there, threatening to close me in.
How do I avoid that trap? Every day I must make the effort to get back to the essence of me—to not be “perfect” and to not care what others think of me. Some days, it works; other days, it doesn’t work as well. But slowly, like a recovering addict, I’m getting closer to—and more comfortable with—the real me who isn’t perfect and never will be.
Saving myself from perfection boils down to five questions that I consciously ask myself every day:
1. Am I judging others and myself? If I’m spending a lot of time correcting myself and others and trying to make those around me perfect, I am losing sight of myself.
2. Am I going with the flow? When I ask this question, I am making a conscious effort to sit back and just watch where life leads me. Yes, I still have my “to-do” lists. But there are plenty of times when I can act spontaneously and find new forms of enrichment. Whenever I have those opportunities, I will take advantage of them.
3. Am I looking up? As a perfectionist, I find that details matter—and they often matter too much. I tend to make every detail matter so much that I can’t get out of my own way. When I do that, I often make myself, and everyone around me, miserable. “Looking up” means raising my head, looking past the details in front of me and cultivating a broader perspective.
4. Am I controlling every facet of <FILL IN THE BLANK>? Perfectionism goes hand in hand with control. When you let go of control, people can see you for who you really are. And you know what? They might actually like the real you.
5. Am I breathing? Am I present? I find that I have a natural tendency to hold my breath. When I do that, I’m not exactly immersing myself in the world around me. By consciously breathing deeply and slowly, I find I’m able to let go and relax, and my experience of the world unfolds naturally, without effort. What a gift!
What’s your story about perfectionism? And how are you making an effort to overcome being perfect? Email me at email@example.com
Valerie was raised by a Tiger Mom Extraordinaire who raised to have the drive for success and be the best at everything that she did. She is a successful entrepreneur, business owner, PR expert and public speaker.
As the CEO of Plat4orm, Valerie has combined her legal and communications expertise to help established brands, mid-sized businesses and start-ups in vertical markets (legal, technology, managed services & financial services) create and execute a wide range of campaigns. Valerie is a teaching fellow at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center and contributes to Forbes and law.com and is frequently quoted in a variety of publications. Valerie received her Bachelor’s degree in English and Communications and Juris Doctorate from Seattle University.