the ocd diaries: perfectionism, but not really.
when i finally admitted that maybe it wasn't perfectly natural after all
I never once thought that my drive to make sure things were done the right way or that I was clear in how I expressed and presented myself was extreme. After all, everyone is a little perfectionist, right?
But if that’s the case, when can you tell that your perfectionism is more than that?
That soon became my question, but it wasn’t always.
Perfectionist is such a problematic word anyway, but it’s thrown around so freely that it feels like it’s a character trait. I called myself a recovering perfectionist for years, especially since I learned how it connects to the ways we dehumanise ourselves in this society. My kid was labelled a perfectionist on his first report card when he was 5 years old! It’s so normalised and I guess we all deal with it to a certain extent. It’s even said that a little perfectionist tendency can be “healthy.” But what does it take for someone to realise that maybe there’s more to it than just a need for things to be done well?
[ID: Philip from Futurama, stares squinting and an unsure grimace, his head to the side. Graphics read in white capital letters, “Not sure if I have OCD or just like things done right.” This made Just Right OCD a little harder for me to accept because it feels very natural to me. But it’s how extreme I’ve taken the belief that’s helping me see differently. END ID]
I’ve just been diagnosed with Just Right OCD and it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. Not because I didn’t think I had an issue with perfectionism, but because I finally had to admit how big the issue had become.
Get real about how your life is being impacted
I don’t want to make this all about perfectionism, because it doesn’t really feel like it at all. When I want things done perfectly, there’s pride in what I’m doing. It feels worth it when I’m pouring into the details and doing the minor fixes to create something I know is done well. I know other people can enjoy it, but it’s really done just for me. It becomes a process I can relish indulging in. That’s part of what made things so difficult to make sense of for the longest time. I couldn’t see when it had become a problem. I lumped all these kinds of behaviour I had into the category of being a perfectionist. It all felt normal.
Perfect is an easy word to describe the expectation and the outcome, but inside there’s a somatic urge, underlying anxiety, and an urgency to have things done a specific way. I couldn’t tell you what “just right” was, when it would turn up or how long it would take me to get it right, only that it was something that had to be done. I first noticed it in connection to my writing on social media and before long, I realised that it was happening almost everywhere.
It was the first time that I had to admit that it had taken over most of my life.
Here are three things that slapped me out of denial and made me wonder if it was something more than just some “healthy perfectionism.”
My fears take on similar themes and I keep trying to do something to make the fear stop
Many times with Just Right OCD there’s a somatic sensation that makes us want to fix something but there also can be intrusive thoughts with them too. In my case, a theme started to arise around thoughts of humiliation and being misunderstood. My writing on social media (particularly my IG account and I won’t even touch Twitter) would become key triggers for me to check and recheck my writing. I would spend hours editing slides, then even more time on the caption. I’d regularly run my posts past others to see if they were correct enough to post.
These fears are also connected to other areas of my life too. My texts would have to be written and rewritten until they felt clear enough to send. In my voice notes I’d send the people I worked with, my podcast episodes, when I met my kiddo’s teacher or at kids’ birthday parties, I’d have to make sure that everything was done and sounded just right. Then I’d spend hours either checking or rechecking things (and then after!), ruminating on what I said and asking my partner or friends if I did/said the right thing. That would help me feel a little more reassured about things if I couldn’t do things in the way that I had envisioned either.
There’s always a thought or a feeling that frightens me or makes me feel so uncomfortable unless I fix it or do it just right. When I can do that, I feel at ease again.
At least until the next time.
I hopelessly doubt myself and my capabilities, but I also know it’s utter bullshit at the same time
One thing I found myself saying over and over again was, “I know that’s not true but I just don’t think I did it good enough.” This tended to come out when I’d just try to get things done, especially while trying to avoid working until I knew it had been done just right.
I say this about my writing when I think it doesn’t sound right, (even though I get countless messages saying otherwise). Or when I don’t think I did enough real transformative work for the people who pay for my services, (even though they’d be the first to volunteer a list of ways I’ve supported them to make significant changes in their lives). I’d say it when I taught a bad lesson, felt unsure about a decision I made with my kid, or said something to a friend that I didn’t think went exactly as it should have gone, (even though I would have evidence proving these thoughts to be untrue).
I could never shake the doubt that things weren’t done as right as they could have been.
That thought would bring me back to a spiral of checking and rechecking to make sure that in all these situations where I felt doubt, I would work until things were done just right. It didn’t matter how long it would take me or what I’d have to avoid so I could do just that.
[ID: Blonde-haired white woman in four different picture frames looks inquisitively over complex maths problems. Graphics read in black capital letters, “My brain searching to find something to obsess over.” When I was being assessed I learned how it can latch on to different doubts making new obsessions. A theme seen in my life too. END ID]
It really was severely impacting my day-to-day life
It all finally came to a head one day when I realised that I was avoiding things.
Not just procrastinating (because I eventually do the thing when I do that), but actively choosing to avoid things that not only I needed to do but things I liked doing too. I was already aware that writing was a big trigger for me, but it was only when I was writing in front of a big (or unforgiving) audience, right?
The checking and rechecking of my writing made me avoid anywhere I had to write. Emails. Session notes. Session transcripts (which I love doing). Writing to my email list (which I really enjoyed writing too). I wasn’t doing any of it.
Because it was taking hours out of my day. One email to my kid’s teacher could take me all morning to write. A post on IG would mean losing half a day to put together and with it my will to do anything else. My energy was being sapped by what I was doing to ensure things were just right. It wasn’t feeding my ability to create, it was draining my energy and desire to do anything whatsoever. This wasn’t “healthy” perfectionism anymore.
It was hell.
Then I started to see the pattern
It wasn’t just the writing I was avoiding. It was anything that brought up the same urge to check and recheck myself. Or anything that I couldn’t get done just right as soon as possible because it was taking every ounce of energy from me if I didn’t. Avoidance was often driven by not wanting to engage in the compulsions to check things, not wanting to deal with the rumination of doubting what I did or the indecision of what would make things just right.
Doing nothing until I could make the right decision or find what would be just right to do seemed like a fairly wise choice to make.
But it wasn’t until I realised that I was watching the platform I created slowly dwindle while my business began to fail that I had to wonder if things had gone a little too far. This checking and rechecking, rumination and avoidance were having knock-on effects on so many other areas of my life. When one thing was successfully being avoided, the doubt would latch onto something else. If I managed to convince myself I could avoid that, all of a sudden I’d find it pop up somewhere else. It was never going away and was only getting worse.
And now, I didn’t have much else left in my life to avoid.
Perfectionism is so commonplace, it can play a key role in our lives. But I’m not sure that that “natural” when it amounts to living with so many unfounded fears over everything we do. OCD was playing out in my head long before I saw it creating havoc in my life. I wish I had stopped for a moment and thought about why I was blaming myself so severely to the point that tasks that were never a big deal, became one.
When did I decide that this kind of fear, anxiety and immobilization was normal?
Maybe it is perfectionism, but maybe it’s OCD too. Maybe it’s neither. But one thing I do know is that I hope we all find the courage to seek support when we need it and not stop until we get it. What we deal with might not be difficult for everyone, but that’s never meant our challenges haven’t been real either.
We should never have been made to believe that living this way had to be our normal.
There are many different types of OCD and they manifest in many different ways. This is just one story and one experience. Always take what resonates and leave the rest. I’ll be writing more about this journey and how I’m learning to manage it over time. But for now, tell me in the comments, what have you learned about OCD? What have you had to unlearn or change about what you were told about perfectionism/being a perfectionist?