My CBT sessions taught me a lot about myself and my thought patterns. A lot of it I kind of already knew about, for example, I already knew I had quite strong feelings of social anxiety. But the CBT went deeper than just identifying what my therapist thought I experienced – it gave me some examples of the behaviours that caused my social anxiety. So, rather than just thinking about the “disorder” I thought I had, it helped me consider what it was that created the problem in the first place.
There were many different cognitive behaviours I could relate to: all the way from the more over-arching concepts of worrying and rumination down to specific types of thinking like 'mind-reading' (e.g. he/she thinks I’m boring) or personalising situations (e.g. they are all laughing – they must be laughing at me).
It was all incredibly interesting. But there was one concept that really resonated with me: the idea of perfectionism.
For most people, the term 'perfectionism' conjures an image of someone fussing over, say, a written assignment for a bit longer than normal. And this is perfectionism in a sense, but not exactly in the anxiety sense.
In the context I realised it affected me, perfectionism was (and still is, to a degree) far from helpful.
Perfectionism infiltrated the majority of my life. It wasn't just about making sure I’d spelled every word correctly in a blog post for example. It was making sure that every word that came out of my mouth was delivered in exactly the right tone, rhythm and time. If I was talking to anyone, even my absolute closest friends, I used to think about the sentence I wanted to say well in advance of me actually saying it. In real time, we’re probably talking about 5-10 seconds before it left my mouth.
In that time-frame, I would chop and change what I was going to say over and over again, the majority of the time leading me to say something very different to what I originally thought. Even once I’d said it, I would immediately analyse how I said it and how the person I was saying it to reacted to it. The majority of the time, this would result in me thinking that I’d said it wrong, or perhaps I’d said it at an inappropriate time or even that I’d said it to the wrong person.
It used to make social media very difficult for me as I used to write a status, chop and change it for 5 minutes, and then delete it altogether. I admit, I still fall into this trap, albeit a lot easier a thought process for me to manage these days.
Looking at perfectionism in a broad sense, it essentially meant that I was setting myself a goal or a vision of myself that I could never actually achieve. It didn't matter how hard I tried, I would never say a sentence exactly how I wanted it to come out. I would never physically look exactly how I wanted to look. I would never be the perfect friend or loved one that I wished I could be.
Having the opportunity to share these thoughts with a trained therapist helped me identify when I was falling into the trap of perfectionism. It meant that I could identify it and try to either intervene or find ways to try and cope with it – something I still employ to this day.