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Mental Health

“I’d let my obsession with being perfect ruin my life”: confessions of a recovering perfectionist

Radhika Sanghani was a lifelong perfectionist until the end of a relationship provided a much-needed wake-up call. Here, she opens up about the joy and success that was waiting for her on the other side – and how you can get there, too

It was midnight, and I was lying in bed using my laptop, utterly exhausted after a long day at work, but I couldn’t go to sleep. Not until I’d made sure the CV I’d been working on for the last four hours was absolutely perfect. My then-boyfriend turned over to look at me: “Radhika, just leave it. Let’s go to sleep.” I tried to explain to him that I wouldn’t be able to relax until it was finished, but he cut me off mid-speech. “It’s my CV, not yours. Please. Let it go.”

This is just one example of what perfectionism looks like for me. For you, it might be that you never skip a workout, that you always over-deliver at work, that your kids are permanently stimulated or your home is constantly immaculate – or perhaps it’s all of these, all at once? There’s a societal myth that perfectionism can be a positive quality – we’ve all heard the job-interview joke of perfectionism being someone’s greatest weakness – but for me, perfectionism is one of the most challenging qualities a person can have. And I should know.

I’ve been a perfectionist ever since I was a child. I used to lie in bed at night, aged six, anxiously going over vocabulary in my head before a spelling test. I once cried myself to sleep because I’d left my homework at school. And as I grew up, I’d spend hours obsessing over any social faux pas I made. At my all-girls school, it didn’t even feel that unusual; most of us felt pressure to never fail. It didn’t even necessarily come from our teachers or parents; we’d just internalised a societal message that we had to be perfect in every way, from our grades to our looks.

Radhika Sanghani, a recovering perfectionist
Radhika Sanghani was a lifelong perfectionist until the end of a relationship

In some ways, perfectionism helped me. I was an A* pupil and working hard came easily – I even enjoyed it. It was more in my 20s that it became a hindrance to my success and, more importantly, to my happiness. I began a demanding job at a broadsheet newspaper where it felt impossible to be perfect. Real life meant regular failures but I was unable to handle them. If my boss criticised me, I’d sob in the loos. I’d take work anxiety home, from inter-office politics to stress about articles I was working on, and it would affect my relationships. My boyfriend would beg me to just enjoy whatever we were doing, but I couldn’t let go of my expectations, whether they were about my day at work or the dinner we were cooking.

That relationship ended five years ago, and it was the wake-up call I needed. I realised, at the point of being heartbroken, that I’d let my obsession with being perfect ruin my life. I wasn’t happy at work because I was so on edge and I’d unfairly put my impossibly high standards onto my boyfriend. I was also so scared of failure that I’d stopped writing novels – my biggest passion project in life. In that moment, I vowed to give up my perfectionism. It was time for me to let go.

So, I quit my job and faced my fears of freelance life. I forced myself to fight back against my critical inner voice; instead I’d try to talk to myself the way I would a good friend. I embraced self-compassion. Slowly, as time went on, I lowered my standards, accepted my flaws and even came to love myself. I’ve now turned this journey into a novel that was published in January – Thirty Things I Love About Myself – and in doing so, I’ve achieved yet another dream that perfectionism held me back from. I now call myself a “recovering perfectionist”, and my life is so, so much better for it.

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Elizabeth Gilbert gives a TED talk
Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, ‘success, failure and the drive to keep creating’, has had over five million views

But I’m not the only one who’s gone on this journey. There’s a rising tide of anti-perfectionism in society today that is acknowledged in everything from Brené Brown’s bestselling book The Gifts Of Imperfection to dozens of TED Talks on the topic. Then there’s the rise of “genuinfluencers” like Danae Mercer and Megan Rose Lane on social media, who try to show the reality of their lives rather than airbrushed perfection. We’re also repositioning perfectionism by celebrating failure in podcasts like Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail, where high-profile figures share their failures to inspire others, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk, Success, Failure And The Drive To Keep Creating, that’s had over five million views.

“People are realising it can lead to behaving badly, particularly in the workplace,” says Dr Alice Boyes, who’s spoken about the topic in her book The Anxiety Toolkit. “Perfectionism leads to not having good boundaries – behaviour like emailing out of hours, for example – because the perfectionist is anxious. They think they won’t be able to cope if they don’t micromanage.” She also thinks the rising awareness of mental health is why we’re all talking about the dangers of perfectionism; it’s so closely linked to anxiety.

She says that perfectionism can be summed up as a vicious cycle: “People think they’ll feel better when they achieve their standards, and when they do, they feel better for a short time, but it doesn’t give them the sense of self-worth they’re craving. So, they raise their standards even higher. And keep going.”

So, where does this leaning towards perfectionism come from? Andy Hill, professor of sports exercise and psychology at York St John University, who’s conducted research into perfectionism, explains that everyone possesses these qualities. “Everyone is a perfectionistic to some degree, much like other personality characteristics. It’s just that some people have them to a higher degree, and they manifest in different areas of their lives, like appearance, sport or the workplace. There is a temptation to think of them as unique, gifted, tortured artists, but in fact they’re in everyone.” The extent to which perfectionism takes over, he says, can be intrinsic – simply something you’re born with – or learned from external environments, such as parents or teachers.

Studies show that more of us suffer from perfectionism than ever before – data from 40,000 students in the UK, US and Canada from 1989 to 2016 shows a clear rise in perfectionism, which may be to blame for increasing rates of anxiety and depression. There are also studies that suggest it affects girls and women more, with one study [an internal report by Hewlett Packard] finding women only applied for a promotion when they met 100% of the criteria (compared to men, who applied meeting just 60%). Perfectionism also starts early: Girlguiding UK found that a quarter of seven to 10-year-old girls felt the need to be perfect.

“Part of it is Instagram life and the pressures of social media,” says Dr Boyes. “But we also have infinite opportunities these days. You can learn anything from YouTube. If you’re not hustling and a millionaire by 25, it’s like, what were you doing? There are so many expectations on young people today.”

It’s something I can fully relate to. By 25, I’d already published two novels, but I was still convinced I was failing at life because they hadn’t become huge bestsellers. I compared myself to my more successful peers and became so anxious that I didn’t write another book for five years. Nor was I able to enjoy what I’d already achieved; I was too obsessed with going over everything I’d done wrong.

“Perfectionism is a real double-edged sword,” says Professor Hill. He’s found that while we can all be perfectionists to a degree, it “can be destructive and distressing and a negative experience” when people engage in a high level of self-criticism.

“Perfectionists take a lot of responsibility for the failures they’ve had, often when it’s not required. It can lead to ‘rumination’: negative, intrusive repetitious thoughts. The level of impact it has on you depends on the level of perfectionism you have and in what area of life it manifests in.

“If it’s about your body and how you look, that has the potential to be more destructive than something you have complete control over, like what order your books are in. It can also result in having much poorer relationships with other people. It’s hard being a perfectionist, but it’s even worse living with one.”

He also explains that while it isn’t a mental-health issue in itself, it can make people more vulnerable to them. “It could lead to clinical issues like depression, anxiety disorders, suicidality, which is when you think about suicide but don’t attempt it. It can also create a fear of failure, a tendency to give up and self-doubt.”

Elizabeth Day headshot
Elizabeth Day's How To Fail podcast celebrates failure

Graphic designer Sarah Beeching, 31, is a recovering perfectionist who feels her perfectionism has led her to suffer anxiety and depression in the past. “It almost becomes obsessive for me. Mine comes from the aesthetic of things, and that translates into my self-esteem and body image. I can spend hours trying to get ready, and if I can’t find something I like, I can get into a really bad state. It’s the same with my work – if I can’t make something work, I get this bubble of panic and it’s overwhelming.”

Sarah feels her perfectionism began at her academic grammar school, where she would spend hours making things look perfect, including her notes and homework. But things changed when she went to art college. “It was such a different way of working that I had to somehow try to break the perfectionist aesthetic, and I found the easiest way to do that was by changing my handwriting so I scrawled things down faster. That broke the habit. Letting go of my handwriting let me be more messy and creative. Now, with my work as an art director, I try to deliberately be messy to override the perfectionist tendencies.”

I’ve also come up with personal tools to help me every time I fall back into the perfectionist mindset. If it’s something to do with work, I take a deep breath and remind myself: “It doesn’t actually matter.” It’s almost a mantra I now use to give myself perspective and focus on the real consequences of my ‘failure’. For example, I might have to do three drafts of my book rather than two – not the end of the world – when instead, my mind tells me: “If you don’t submit a perfect draft, they’ll think you’re awful and never work with you again. This is the worst book you’ve ever written.”

It’s no surprise to me that both Dr Boyes and Professor Hill stress that self-compassion is the best route out of perfectionism. “It’s a really important strategy to learn,” says Professor Hill. “It’s about being less self-critical and learning to move on when you get the repetitious thoughts of rumination.”

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Dr Boyes says that often the fear of rumination – constantly reliving the “failure” in your head – is what leads people into perfectionism. Her advice for rewiring the mind is self-compassion, but also distraction. “You can do a cognitively absorbing task, like a word-finder puzzle, to take yourself out of it. And then do a small productive thing afterwards, which you might normally avoid, like cleaning out your fridge.”

My first step to recovering from perfectionism was admitting to myself just how unhappy it was making me. Yes, it helped me achieve success, but it also robbed me of the chance to enjoy it. That awareness was what I needed, to begin actively changing the inner voice in my head. I knew I wanted to be happy rather than perfect, so I started switching my critical self-talk to supportive self-talk, and in my late 20s, I finally learned to be nice to myself.

I started by faking it until I made it – trying not to laugh as I told my reflection how beautiful and amazing it was and writing positive messages to myself on my mirror (in red lipstick, I may add, like something from a bad TV thriller). But over time, I eventually stopped seeing it all as silly and started to actually believe the messages I was telling myself. The nicer I was to myself, the more obvious my negative thoughts became. I could spot them instantly, so I started to question them and then, eventually, dismiss them. This changed everything. I was no longer plagued with anxiety; instead, I felt free. I laughed when things went wrong; I stopped trying so hard all the time, and I began enjoying everything I was doing, rather than wishing it was different. I learned to live in the moment.

A few years on, I still get relapses, but I no longer judge myself for them. Instead, I remind myself it’s all part of the journey, and look at how far I’ve come. I’m happy to call myself a recovering perfectionist rather than saying I’m fully free of it, because the truth is, perfectionism will always be with me. It’s a part of me. But I just don’t let it rule my life any more. My compassionate self is the one in the driver’s seat; perfectionism is the slightly annoying child in the back who keeps trying to get my attention but quietens down when I reassure it with my words. This might not be the most perfect solution, but it’s the best one I’ve got, and if there’s anything I’ve learnt as a recovering perfectionist, it’s that your best is always enough.

Thirty Things I Love About Myself by Radhika Sanghani (£14.99, Headline) is available now

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources from the mental health charity Mind and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS guide to local mental health helplines and organisations.

Images: Justin Metz, Getty

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