Why Perfectionism and Chronic Illness Don’t Mix

I am a born perfectionist. I grew up with the work-hard, follow-the-rules, be-a-good-Christian-girl mentality. I walk into a room and spot the dirt. I hear when a singer is singing flat. I notice spelling mistakes in books. I am not looking for these things, but they are the first things I see.

Perfectionism is based on the motto, “You should be doing better.” It assumes that no matter what you do, you could – and should – always be doing better. In many ways, this is an inspirational way to live.

It drives you to be a high achiever.

It forces you to constantly reflect on yourself.

It teaches you good morals and work ethic.

It is an inspirational way to live.

But here’s the thing. The perfectionist never takes a day off. It is constantly there, telling you what you should be doing, how you should be working harder, how you should be doing more. It is driven by the Shoulds.

The Shoulds

I am constantly handed advice by the Shoulds. A typical day for me might run something like this:

“You should have gotten up earlier.”
“You should be able to get everything done.”
“You should get to work on time.”
“You shouldn’t bend that way – it’s bad for your back.”
“You should make an effort with that telemarketer.”
“You shouldn’t feel this tired – it’s only 10am.”
“You should be able to work just as hard as anyone else.”
“You should be able to get all your work done, regardless of how little time you have or how many interruptions come your way.”
“You should be able to cope with anything that happens today.”
“You shouldn’t still be struggling with this.”
“You should be happy and content all the time.”

I could go on, but you get the gist. The perfectionist does not recognise how well we are doing, what we have already have achieved, or what limitations we might be facing. The perfectionist just keeps applying more and more pressure to do better.

It is based on the belief that we are not good enough, just the way we are.

Perfectionism is based on the belief that we are not good enough.

Chronic Illness

To say that chronic illness gets in the way of being perfect would be the understatement of the year. When one has chronic illness, one cannot be anywhere near perfect. Just being close to normal is a minor miracle.

Chronic illness gets in the way of us doing more, working harder, achieving greater things. Chronic illness gets in the way of most things. But the perfectionist does not accept this as a viable excuse.

To the perfectionist, chronic illness is irrelevant.

The perfectionist says we should be capable of anything, regardless of our limitations. Even as I write this, I am acutely aware of how ridiculous this sounds. Imagine if your best friend spoke to you this way, ignoring your illness, telling you to get on with it. You would not sit there politely.

You’d kick ‘em out.

If your best friend spoke to you this way, you’d kick ‘em out.

I propose we do the same with the perfectionist.

The perfectionist sometimes gets it wrong. The perfectionist fails to recognise when we have had a relapse with our illness, lost half a nights’ sleep, or are not doing well. The perfectionist does not cut us any slack.

I think it is high time that changed.

Time to break some rules.

Do you struggle with the Shoulds when you are unwell? How do you cope with expectations and limitations when you are sick? How do you deal with perfectionism? Share your story – let’s have a countercultural conversation.

2 thoughts on “Why Perfectionism and Chronic Illness Don’t Mix

  1. Hi Steph. Ah! The word ‘should’! I read quite some time ago – can’t remember where – that the word ‘should’ is a word to avoid because all it does is open the door for guilt. I believe that is absolutely true. And then more recently I came across a You Tube clip of Joel McKerrow. He performs a poem about the word ‘Should’. I think it might resonate with you. it is a TED talk, about 15 minutes long, and in the first part he talks about the power of telling our stories, then he finishes with the poem. The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDYH-pEO-1U
    I am doing an on-line course with Joel at the moment and I am challenged every day to go deeper inside myself to find the real me. His insights are quite profound . I will be interested in your comments if you are able to watch the You Tube clip. It may not appeal to you but I think it will.

    • Hi Valmai, thanks for your comment, and for the YouTube link! I watched the clip you recommended -wow, what a stirring exhortation to live beyond the Shoulds in our lives! You are right, the Shoulds do often lead directly to guilt. I think they are a double edged sword: they can motivate you, as I wrote about, but they seem mostly to lead to self-blame and accusation. Lord, free us from the tyranny of the Shoulds! I am glad you are continuing to peel back the layers and discover more of who you truly are.

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