My lifelong struggle with perfectionism
After a life of doing all the right things, I was only left with one question: "Is this it?"
After a life of doing all the right things, I was only left with one question: "Is this it?"
My name is Carolina, and I'm coming at you from different angles which I want to point out from the beginning as these things have shaped my perspective and life experience:
- I'm a woman (cis-gendered), born and raised in a Catholic country in Central America
- I'm an immigrant (left by myself at age 18, since then I have lived in 5 different cities across Canada, Colombia, and Switzerland)
- I've been in STEM for most of my adult life, and 3 years ago I switched to Marketing and switched to another male-dominated field
- Each relocation has transformed me, and the last one (my move to Toronto) was the most dramatic one, as it was the straw that finally broke me
- The first three bullet points mean that I have been the token/minority in plenty of situations. If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you might relate to this
- I've always been a misfit. By grade 5 I had fallen in love with Edgar Allen Poe's stories, I was the Goth kid, then the metalhead (still am), the girl with the contrarian personality. This played a big role in my struggle with perfectionism. I believed that I deserved this, because misfits have unfortunate endings. All I could hope for was that I wouldn't be stoned to death and be left alone so I could build my cabin in the woods, metaphorically speaking.
- Because of the point above, I've had a rich, but extremely lonely, inner life. Books and writing are my escape. The only person I know who has been able to meet me in that space is my husband. That's why I married him.
- Finally, I've been extremely privileged to live the life I live. I've never faced poverty and I didn't immigrate out of necessity. However, I put immense pressure on myself to feel that I was worthy of this privilege as I was the first woman from my mother's side to be able to do these things freely. Life was handed to me on a silver platter, and that magnified my fears of being mediocre and average.
All of the points above exacerbated or contributed to my perfectionism and impostor syndrome, which developed at a very early age. I spent most of my teenage and young adult years in denial, and my perfectionism became unsustainable after I left the safe space of academia and started working. I developed PMDD, which was never properly diagnosed, and I struggled in silence for 7 years before I understood that my pain was psychosomatic. I would have probably continued living this way, if I had not hit my personal rock bottom...after all the degrees and promises of success, I found myself with no purpose, no career that I could be proud of, and no extra zeroes in my bank account to soften the blow of a less-than-stellar life.
The smart child with a bright future turned out to be an average citizen who could not save herself or the world. Then, after a day of (literally) dealing with shit and walking to a flooded basement, I decided I had enough of this passive existence.
I spent the next two years getting acquainted with my demons. For the first time in my life, I saw through the veil and dug my way out of the shame and anger that I had been carrying for years. Now, I am sharing with strangers on the internet, because my desire is to build a community of like-minded souls who want answers to the same question I struggled with for more than 30 years: Who Am I? What is the thing that I am meant to do in this lifetime?
Perfectionism blocks your capacity to answer that question. This is why I believe this inner work is so important. I understand the mental game and how this fits into the big picture of our culture, and I'm not having it anymore. Welcome, hope you enjoy what you find in this space.
The brokenness started young
This obsession with worthiness started at a young age. I remember starting Grade 1 after everyone else because I got chicken pox just before school started. I felt lost, and I struggled to catch up. I was an extremely shy, ambidextrous girl, who did not understand why she had a right-handed desk but left-handed scissors (it should have been the other way around, but I was too scared to speak up and fix that mess).
I remember failing entrance exams to schools, and sensing the stress and disappointment of my parents. I had to learn how to speak up, because raising my hand in class terrified me. This shit was not going to fly in my house though. So I worked, and I worked hard. I was a first-grader who'd do her regular homework and in her spare time she'd have to do more workbooks to improve her spelling and math.
I would cry myself to sleep because I could not be like the other smart girls in class. Everything was a struggle. I had to put so much effort just to be good enough. I developed a sense of "not having what it takes" and my response to that was to double down to prove everyone that they were wrong.
That story repeated itself over and over again for the next 30 years. Same trauma, different shapes and colours.
In Panama, grades are given a score from 1.0 to 5.0, 5.0 being the best (100%) and 1.0 being failure. For the first 17 years of my life, this was the measuring stick. Anything below 4.7 was unacceptable.
Getting to 4.7 in every single subject was not easy for me. Math and Physics were hard. I kinda sucked at Art. Don't get me started on P.E. To this day, I still hate team sports and HR can shove it if they are going to use that to measure my team player skills during an interview.
Still, after a lot of hard work, I managed to do it and I graduated with a 4.75 average. It wasn't good enough because I wasn't the class valedictorian, but it was good enough to get accepted at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
At that age, I already understood that I struggled with feelings of self-worth, but I thought the solution was to do more and work harder. The struggle was worth it as long as I could get 1st place. As long as I could repress the tears and pull all-nighters, I would be okay.
That's the thing with perfectionism. As long as you are winning, you don't think it is toxic. But, what happens when life doesn't go as planned?
The seeds of self-hatred were already germinating by the time I moved to Vancouver for school. I had been accepted into the Science program, which is one of the toughest programs in this world-class institution.
Strangers would ask me what I was doing in Canada. When I said I was here to study science, they would look at me amazed. "You must be VERY smart!"
My brain: "Shit. Am I going to get slaughtered?"
Well, there was no turning back, as there was ZERO chance in hell that I was going to return to Panama. My pride and my perfectionism was all I had at the time to get through school. Again, I worked hard, I set impossible expectations for myself, and after a horrible first semester (I failed every single mid-term), I learned the ropes and things generally went up from there.
I feel that most people who tell stories about how hard they worked and finally made it do a disservice to the rest of us who are threading water, trying to survive and excel in life at the same time...because for every day "I worked hard", I had days where I wanted to die, there were days I'd hide in my room and cry because I hated myself and I didn't know how to NOT be that way. So weak, broken, and full of self-hatred. There were days where my best friend would take anything sharp from my dorm room, just in case.
It didn't help that I was feeling like this over something "as silly" as grades. I had a voice in my head that would tell me that, while there was another voice that told me how my entire worth as a human being depended on the letters on my transcript. There was no way to win against these voices. I just powered through, hoping that by doing more, I'd suddenly find the answer.
I did plenty of doing, hoping that enough of that would make me feel whole
Leaving the safe space of academia
I had an extended stay in academia; I did a 4 year program plus 16 months of internships followed by a 3 year, research-based Masters. My grad school years were a little better because in research you are not evaluated against an answer sheet, that's the whole point of doing research, you are doing something new.
Halfway through my grad school program I discovered a book about self-compassion, and that was the first time that I learned I had to be kind to myself. I also joined every network that supported young women in science, hoping that I'd find my answers there. Perhaps this feeling of "not good enough" was just because I picked a very difficult career path, and I just had to learn how to navigate being a woman in science.
Well, I eventually left science, so I can tell you...my career choice was not the problem.
Anyway, back to the timeline - my teenage dreams of becoming a kick-ass scientist died in 2011 when I decided I was not going to pursue a PhD. This was the first time in my life I had to accept my limitations, and it sucked. Going any further would just expose how average I was at understanding chemistry. I cried as if I was attending my funeral, but I knew it was the right choice.
The rug had been pulled from under me, and now I had to figure out the next steps, and ensure that I could stay in Canada...that's how I ended up in Edmonton working at a start-up.
Welcome to adulthood, here is your antidepressant prescription
This is when everything started to unravel for me. I had now switched the measuring stick of transcripts with the measuring stick of work. This job was stressful, and it landed me inside a walk-in clinic more than once.
On top of that, I had just gotten out of a 7-year relationship and during the last months of that relationship, I had stopped taking birth control pills...eventually, I started to notice a disturbing pattern. Every month, just before I got my period, my depression and anxiety would get worse. I did the blood tests, ultrasounds, pap smears, you name it, and everything came out as normal.
Since there was no apparent reason for my symptoms, I was put on antidepressants.
This was a shameful and embarrassing moment for me. Me, on antidepressants? I hid that from everyone, no fucking way was I going to admit that having a vagina was giving me all this trouble.
After a couple of months on antidepressants, I went cold turkey. The numbness was as unbearable as my suicidal ideation episodes. I'd rather live for 20 days and then deal with my insanity for 5 (sometimes 10) days than live the monotone, emotionally flat existence that antidepressants gave me.
My PMS got progressively worse over the next 7 years, to the point that I started having panic attacks, insomnia and severe mood swings. I begged doctors, actually, I begged two more times, once in Switzerland and once in Colombia, just to find myself, again, at a pharmacist, picking up those fucking pills...taking them for a few months...hating it...and throwing them in the garbage and contemplating how bad things would need to become so I could be approved for a hysterectomy?
So, to recap, my body wants to kill me once a month, my job was killing me, and I was carrying the emotional baggage of perfectionism and impostor syndrome. In typical fashion, I decided that the answer was to do more, and this time I went to Switzerland to do an MBA. Since I was officially done with R&D, I was going to get those three fancy letters and reinvent myself.
The failed MBA graduate
Actually, the MBA was good. At the very least, it wasn't *more* traumatizing than my BSc/MSc and I even had a transformative experience. I took a class that forced me to admit my biggest fear and describe the mask that I was using to protect myself. I cried a lot that day, and months later I went to Amsterdam for 5 days to continue learning with this instructor. It was the first time in my life that I started to see the lies and limiting beliefs that were crippling me. It took another 5 years for the walls to finally crumble so I could heal those wounds and rebuild myself.
So why do I say "failed MBA"? As usual, I was an excellent student. As usual, I decided that the best thing to do was to do more, and I was going to finally beat my impostor syndrome by becoming an entrepreneur. I was going to step all the way out of my comfort zone and lean in head first because every time I've been put in a challenging situation, I always figure it out. Therefore, I'd live my best life as an entrepreneur and finally beat this demon that keeps telling me that I am not worthy.
Sounds like a plan!
Fast forward to 2017, my ideas were a flop, so I had to find a job ASAP. I closed that chapter of my life with a lot of sadness and bitterness and moved to Toronto in 2018.
Wayward, depressed, and in Toronto
Toronto was the final straw that broke me.
But you wouldn't know that if you had seen me when I arrived. I was booking breakfast, lunch, coffee and dinner meetings, I was networking and hustling and promoting myself to land a job, even though I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.
The hustling paid off since I realized that I wanted to be in marketing...but my morale was in the dumpster, so it was hard to apply to jobs because I had zero self-confidence. So I faked it till I made it, and I got a job at a company that couldn't pay me enough...and I took that offer without even negotiating it.
While everyone else I knew was kicking ass in their cushy jobs and living their best white-collar lives, I was an MSc/MBA graduate earning a "make-ends-meet" salary in one of the most expensive cities in North America, and that was just the tip of the ego-crushing events that followed.
I was still struggling with my PMDD and was separated from my husband because he had to go through the immigration process to get his residence. I was alone in Toronto, not by choice, and in a deep, deep pit of depression and despair.
I had no purpose other than paying my bills and keeping my residence in Canada. The dreams of saving the world with biofuels had died when I left Edmonton, and everything I tried since then was a dead end.
If the sea was the landscape of my adult life, it would have been littered with burning ships of unfinished projects and broken dreams, slowly sinking and rotting at the bottom of the ocean floor.
As much as everyone complimented me and thought I had accomplished things, I had no idea wtf they were talking about. All I could see was failure, after failure, after failure.
Since I developed a strong stance on staying alive regardless of the circumstances...I wasn't scared that I would do the deed. However, it became my consolation. I stopped dreaming. I had no vision for the future, except that one day my parents would be gone, my husband would be gone, and then...I'd be able to walk away from all of this.
I just needed to kill time between now and then, and for a while, that really was my plan. Just go through the motions and get a rush of adrenaline here and there with a bit of travel. Remember how I said at the beginning that I am a misfit? Well, being a misfit added to my chagrin because I could not even pretend I was working to have the things that people normally seek to fill the existential void of their lives (a house, the kids, the car, the corporate life).
I wasn't a blank slate looking for a fresh start in Toronto. I was a void slate, with occasional funny moments.
And then the rainstorm of 2018 happened...
That day I got home to find my place infested with flies. It turned out that an animal had taken a dump right outside my bedroom window (basement life, but also, I thought it was an adequate metaphor of my life at the time). After I got rid of the flies, I left my house in a rush to go to a concert, and by the time it was over, the city of Toronto had just lived through a bad rainstorm and I had zero idea because I had been headbanging to Corrosion of Conformity all night.
That night I opened the door of my basement to find a giant puddle of dirty water and mud going across the living room.
That was the moment that did it for me.
I brought this on myself
The next day, after mopping and picking up towels to soak up the mess, I called my sister and I sobbed uncontrollably.
"This is my fault", I said. "I'm responsible for the situation I'm in".
What followed was a two-year process to become myself and finally heal from the wounds that led to my perfectionism as a coping mechanism and the impostor syndrome that plagued me since I was a child.
It was a messy process to learn how to love myself and to finally detach from the labels that I thought would give me purpose and meaning. I expunged the repressed anger, shame and fear of rejection.
I suffered many psychological deaths until I reached a point of radical self-acceptance. In many ways, I am still not where I want to be, but that doesn't consume me anymore. I have transformed that into a healthy desire that fuels my desire to create this blog, develop this course and build a community of souls who are going through the same struggle.
I learned that I wasn't lost, broken, or incomplete. I discovered that my true self had been buried under repressed emotions and memories, it was hiding under false beliefs and labels that were keeping me safe by keeping me small, restrained and submissive.
I went down the rabbit hole of my mind and saw my demons for who they were. I made peace with them, and now I have taken their power as my own.
For the first time in my life, I understood that living as a perfectionist was a lose-lose situation. A perfectionist is never in her power. Perfectionism kept me from being my authentic self and limited my capacity to show up for myself and for others.
I have come a long way since that night in 2018, and I am here to share my story and challenge how we see perfectionism and impostor syndrome. I am here to share the method to my madness, the process that I used to overcome my self-hatred and open up my emotionally-stunted self.
As for my PMDD, I have been symptom free for almost two years now. No antidepressants, no surgery needed. It turns out that my pain was my body's way to tell me that I had to pay attention. My soul was dying, and my body was begging me to stop, slow down, and listen.
I have become the woman that I was imitating this whole time. I am in my power. I do not doubt my abilities any more. I dream, and I DREAM BIG. I act, and I act with passion, with joy and with abandonment because I know that no matter what happens, this does not define me and I will be okay.
I don't need to be anyone or do anything to feel that I deserve love, respect and appreciation. I give those things to myself now, and in abundance (still a work in progress). I don't wait until I achieve imaginary targets to feel good about my work and enjoy life as it is right now.
This is just the beginning, and I am already more alive than I've ever been. I work hard, but I don't burn out. I am learning a lot, and I am enjoying the process. I am doing things that would have freaked the living shit out of me, and I am doing them with ease.
I want everyone to feel this way about themselves because when you feel like this, you can think beyond your survival and come up with ways that you can thrive and lift the rest of the people around you. We desperately need those kinds of movers and shakers.