Paul's story: Living with perfectionism and depression

My name's Paul and I'm a recovering perfectionist.

I am also recovering from depression. The two are connected.

I'd been trying to do too much, too well, trying to please too many people, expecting too much of myself for too long, putting too much pressure on myself, creating too much stress. That's a lot of ‘too muches' for one person. My self-esteem took a battering, I stopped looking forward to anything and I felt like I was useless and hopeless.

This might sound like my depression was my fault but however cruel I have been to myself over the last few years I'm not going to start blaming myself for a miserable illness that affects one in four people.

It's only now that I'm slowly emerging from my black cloud that I can look back and see how perfectionism played its part.

I've set myself excessively high standards since I was young. I remember coming second in the class at English at the age of 11 and thinking grumpily that the girl who ‘beat' me was a swot. Two years later, I gave up having clarinet lessons at school because it interfered with my geography lessons and I'd ‘only' got 70% in my latest exam.

In my adult life, this perfectionism has found a home in my job as a publishing manager. It's quite a useful trait when your job involves a high degree of accuracy, but it means that if I spot the tiniest error – like a double space or a rogue comma – in something I've written, edited or checked, I disown it.

I'm also in my village pantomime, and find it impossible to watch any of my performances on DVD without finding something to cringe at or criticise.

It is a fact of life that nobody is perfect. It is also true that nobody can be the best at something – and definitely not at everything – all the time. It has taken two rounds of counselling for me to realise these things.

So what else have I learned?

  • Getting something wrong sometimes does not make you a failure. Most of the time, a small mistake is of absolutely no consequence. Save your perfectionism for when something is really worth the extra effort.
  • Not being a perfectionist doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your high standards, but recognise that sometimes there is a standard that's ‘good enough' – something that's completely acceptable to everyone else, so may as well be acceptable to you too.
  • Beware of ‘black and white thinking'. Very few things are as clear cut as ‘absolute success' or ‘total failure'. For example, eating two crisps when you're on a diet doesn't mean you have to jack in the whole diet there and then because you feel you've failed. Neither does my rogue comma make a whole piece of work completely useless.
  • Don't beat yourself up if something doesn't go exactly the way you want it to. There really is no point. Allow yourself time to think about whether you actually could have done anything better, and if you could, learn from it. If you couldn't, accept it and move on.

These things sound easy. They're not. Not to me and not to a lot of other people. But my good health depends on me learning them and sticking to them. That's something I really do need to get right.