health

GEORGIE DENT: "Perfectionism isn't a humble brag. It's toxic."

At 24, Georgie Dent had the world at her feet – but within a year she found herself in the midst of a nervous breakdown, suffering such crippling anxiety that she admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital. In her new book BREAKING BADLY Georgie shares how it all fell apart, and how she rebuilt her life.

If you wanted to make your life better what is the one thing you’d change?

Eliminate fear.

I was sitting up on my bed in hospital, using a meal tray as my desk, staring at those two little words. The question about making my life better had been posed at the end of a group therapy session earlier, and my answer, underlined in my notebook in lead pencil, shocked me.

I was scared all the time.

What was I so afraid of? Failing? Being disliked? Being seen as inadequate or incompetent? Did these things even matter? Why was I holding myself hostage to fear?

My whole life, I had been holding myself to impossible standards. I didn’t know there was a name for that paradigm at the time, but enlightenment came in a workshop on perfectionism run by Victoria, a psychologist who ran group therapy sessions.

‘We are going to explore perfectionism today, and before we begin I want to get a sense from you about how it might be impacting each of you,’ she said. ‘Put your hand up if you have ever felt like nothing you do is good enough.’

I practically snorted, inadvertently, as I shot up my hand. Several other hands went up too.

Victoria looked at me with a smile. ‘Georgie, my question obviously struck something in you. When can you remember feeling that way?’

‘My whole life. I have literally never not felt that way.’

Georgie Dent chats to Mia Freedman about her breakdown. Post continues below.

A man in his forties laughed. ‘Me too,’ he said.

‘That’s not an unusual response in here,’ Victoria said. ‘Perfectionism is a pervasive risk factor for depression and anxiety, so it’s an issue for many patients.’

Clinical perfectionism, she explained, is described as relentlessly striving for high achievements and unfairly judging yourself when those goals can’t be met. ‘For perfectionists,’ she went on, ‘life is an endless report card, and anything less than an A+ is a failure. And the trouble is no one ever gets A+ for everything, and life isn’t a subject at school. Failure in some form or another is inevitable. But for perfectionists, falling short, even in little ways, can feel catastrophic.’

ADVERTISEMENT

To say I related is an understatement.

I had always thought ‘I’m a perfectionist’ was a humblebrag: shorthand for ‘I have impeccably high standards’, ‘I work hard’, ‘I pursue excellence’. Why else was it relied upon so often in response to that age-old interview question: What are your weaknesses?

‘One of the reasons perfectionism is toxic is because ultimately it’s about seeking the approval of others,’ Victoria said. ‘It’s about measuring up, but perfectionists rarely concede that they do measure up.’

The penny dropped. Being ‘perfect’ was the armour I sought out to protect myself from falling short. I was living at the mercy of what I imagined ‘other people’ thought, and not because I was particularly invested in the views of any person in particular. I was terrified of being judged by anyone about anything.

Victoria helped me to recognise how perfectionism had contributed to my undoing. The reason I hadn’t stopped to prioritise my health earlier was that I was scared doing that meant failure. Doing anything outside what I perceived as the ‘norm’ for highly functioning individuals was failure.

She explained that it’s the perception of, and reaction to ‘failure’ that makes perfectionism toxic. In the binary land of the perfectionist mind, the expectation is that every path will be smooth and easy to navigate, and when that isn’t the case, coping is difficult.

Two immutable facts of life make this paradigm calamitous: perfection is impossible to achieve, and failure is inevitable. Getting so sick that I had to retreat from life and be admitted to a psychiatric hospital was a powerful lesson in both.

To challenge the perfectionist mindset, Victoria recommended a practical exercise: thinking of three things, no matter how small, that had happened that day which made us feel something positive: happy, proud, grateful, relieved.

ADVERTISEMENT

‘The point of this exercise is to develop a new habit in your thinking to focus on the positives in your day and foster gratitude,’ she said. ‘It’s simple but very powerful, because it forces you to think differently. It can chip away at the tendency perfectionists have to be highly critical of themselves.’

Imagine falling asleep focusing on something good? Not being consumed with fear and worry about all the things I have ever done wrong? Is that even possible?

I was learning that it was.

That night as I tucked myself in, I was looking forward to putting this activity to the test. I was strict and didn’t let my mind wander. I started to think about what had happened that day that had made me feel good.

I thought of the walk I took along the beach before dinner, a new habit, and about the thrill I’d felt at being outside. I thought of the group therapy session in which I had been honest, again, about what I was feeling, and about how strangely rewarding it felt to be vulnerable: to actually own my quirks instead of desperately trying to hide them.

I thought about the conversation I’d had with my boyfriend Nick before I hopped into bed. About how lucky and happy I was to have this warm, kind and funny person in my life.

I wasn’t yet ready to reach for things I had done well, but I was able to latch on to the parts of my day that had left me feeling good.

Feeling, for once, more content than afraid, I drifted into sleep.

If you are struggling with anxiety, support is available 24/7 via Beyond Blue. Call the support line on 1300 22 4636 or visit the website.

This is an edited extract from Breaking Badly by Georgie Dent (Affirm Press, $29.99), out now.

00:00 / ???