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The Curse Of Perfectionism; Or, The Cure For Depression?

Until very recently, I was a perfectionist. Long story short, since I was in my mid-teens I have been a miserable person.

Hold on. What does perfectionism have to do with misery?

Everything.

They go together like a hand in a glove. Horse and carriage. Forrest Gump and shrimp boats.

How? Perfectionists hold everyone around them to impossibly high standards. Worse, they hold themselves to those same standards.

In other words, they see everyone as failures. Including – especially – themselves. Ever heard of a joyful failure? Or even just a happy failure?

Perfectionism leads to depression.

Oh, sure, for decades my friends have thought I was a happy person. I knew how to smile and make others feel good.

I always was a good actress. (But, I have to admit, I didn’t fool my youngest sister who would later go on to take a bunch of psych. classes in order to get her Master’s in social work.)

The truth is, for most of my adult life I have struggled with mild depression. P.M.S. would throw me into moderate to severe depression. No, I never stayed in bed for days on end. I have always been too driven, too full of purpose…at least, enough of the time to keep me from lazing around in the house all day.

Besides, I couldn’t support myself staying in bed (I was single until age 35). Even though I occasionally had days when I’d had enough of life, I was never desperate enough to starve myself to death.

But I have been, for most of my adult life, depressed to some level or another. Good days came, but they inevitably led me back to the sordid truth: I still had not achieved perfection. And so the good days would leave.

But wait, there’s more!

Then I had a baby who eventually morphed into a toddler and preschooler who showed all the symptoms of ADHD and ODD (that’s Oppositional Defiance Disorder for you uninitiated), and at least half of the symptoms of manic depression.

I got even more depressed. (Wouldn’t you?!)

Then I came to believe that my nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy had caused my son brain damage. And I became even more depressed.

Then I hit the big 4-0. That in itself did not depress me – I had never seen forty as being “old” – but the symptoms of perimenopause descended on me like a kitten on a grasshopper. Part of the package was to exacerbate the depression.

Where was my faith in all this?

In the meantime, was I angry at God? Did I scream at Father? Curse, even? Or did I suck everything up to the tribulations Jesus warned His disciples about?

To the first three questions: yes, yes, and yes – at least, sometimes (usually during A Certain Time Of The Month). To the last question: no.

No, I didn’t suck it up to the tribulations everyone has. Because, you see, I was a perfectionist. I was in control of my life. Therefore, everything that went wrong in my life was my fault.

Somehow. Even if indirectly.

What was wrong with me? Hadn’t I ever heard that we are not in control, God is? Hadn’t I read about how trials lead to stronger faith? Didn’t I know about the children starving in Siberia, paralyzed women of God like Joni Erickson Tada, and the man with the wooden leg named Smith?

Yes, yes, and of course! But you can’t tell a perfectionist that she can’t do something to make everything perfect.

The real cure for depression?

I am wondering now if anyone has ever done a study to discover the percentage of clinically depressed people who are perfectionists. Let me Google that real quick…

(By the way, “real quick” is a Southern phrase that means the person using the phrase will get the thing done in the next day or two.)

I’m back. So, I just discovered that according to everydayhealth.com, I have been a “clinically significant perfectionist.” A medical paper online added to that with:

Individuals with perfectionist personality styles are vulnerable to symptoms of depression, especially when their maladaptive perfectionism becomes clinically significant.

I can’t find any numbers, but my theory? A whole lot of depressed people, maybe the majority, are perfectionists at heart. Therefore, a certain cure for depression is to stop being a perfectionist.

Not as easy as it sounds. Believe me, I have known this perfectionism thing was slowly killing me. I tried to will it away. But it didn’t work. Tried praying. Nope.

Then again…I have a vague recollection of a couple of months ago, repenting to Father for my sorry attitude and begging Him to change me. It wasn’t a new prayer, but maybe I was finally ready to accept His work in my life.

However it went, shortly thereafter I realized with absolute clarity that I was going to go insane if I kept on the way I was. If I kept trying to control my life – as well as the people in it.

If I kept second-guessing every decision I ever made.

I realized that I had to accept – no, embrace – my life as it was. No more regrets. No more guilt. No more whining. No more screaming at Jesus.

And to do that, I had to let go. Of what?

Perfectionism. The need to be in control.

And when I did that, miracle of miracles, the depression lifted.

No fireworks. No breaking open of the sky. Really, the whole thing happened so subtly and quietly that I didn’t even realize it had happened until a couple of days later.

I believe it was an answer to prayer. Why now?

Why not ten years ago? / Why not five? / I don’t know, go ask a chive.

(Oh, my greatest apologies to Dr. Seuss.)

UPDATE: No, it wasn’t an answer to prayer. At least, not the supernatural, almost miraculous answer I thought it was at first. Read this post for more. 

I suppose I had to go through what I had to go through. I’m just happy I made it to the other side.

I’m happy that I’m happy.

And glad that I’m no longer kicking myself at every imperfection.

Finally, I get the people who are totally in love with life! 🙂

P.S. – It doesn’t hurt that my son is no longer the terror that he used to be. More on that in another post.

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