Perfectionism: A Battle of the Beasts in My Brain

By Tiffany

I can remember being plagued by perfectionism as early as 3rd grade.

When doing my homework, I would often have a pile of crumpled up papers next to me from all the times I would re-start my assignment. If I did not find my work aesthetically pleasing for one reason or another, I’d crumple up my paper and start again. I would literally waste a whole piece of paper just because I didn’t like how my name looked written at the top of the paper or if my indentations were slightly uneven. If I made a mistake, instead of erasing or using white-out, I’d start all over.

I don’t think I realized how problematic this behavior was at the time. Thankfully, at least for the sake of the trees, by the time I reached high school most assignments had to be typed. This didn’t stop the perfectionist monster though, as it found other ways to rear its ugly head.

In high school and college, I would re-write notes taken during class because I thought they looked messy. Notes are probably supposed to be messy, but not in my world. When studying for a test, I’d often stay up all night, anxiously transposing my textbook onto note cards. My parents thought I was cramming, but really, I was overwhelmed with anxiety over the possibility of failing. Anything less than an “A” was complete and utter failure in my eyes.

Once I lived on my own, I became obsessed with order and tidiness in my own home. I don’t have a fear of germs, but you probably wouldn’t believe me if you saw how I cleaned house. It is likely that you could have safely eaten off my floor and toilets. I’d vacuum daily, sometimes several times a day, obsessing over the lines on the carpet made by the vacuum. If the carpet lines were crooked or in any way imperfect, or if I accidentally left a small footprint where I had already vacuumed, just like in 3rd grade, I’d start all over.

I would regularly take on projects, like cleaning the baseboards or cleaning the grout with bleach and a toothbrush, often staying up all night to complete these tasks. Do you remember the old, powdered Resolve carpet cleaner that came with a red scrub-brush?  More often than necessary, I would get down on my hands and knees to scrub the carpet after covering it in that Resolve cleaning powder. Imagine what I did when I got my first carpet shampooer. Yes, I shampooed my carpets at least once a week. Who does that?!

These behaviors weren’t limited to cleaning house and writing assignments. They permeated my entire existence: work, home, play, relationships, and even my thoughts.   Like a neatly wrapped package with a beautiful bow on top, I sought perfection in all aspects of my life.


This isn’t to say that it is bad to keep your house clean, to be organized, or to endeavor to be neat with writing assignments. The problem was with the frequency and intensity of these projects I would create for myself combined by being motivated by an overwhelming need to do things perfectly.

Work projects would often keep me at work several hours after my shift ended for no reason other than me obsessing over the perfection of the final result. I remember making bulletin boards in the classroom where I worked and drawing faint pencil lines with a yard stick to ensure the lettering was straight.  If the letters looked slightly slanted or unevenly spaced, I’d take all the letters down and try again.

“No” was not a word in my regular vocabulary. I constantly over-extended myself in almost every aspect of life. I obsessed over stupid little things like how I folded a kitchen rag to big important things, like having my first baby.  When I got pregnant with my first child, my house was probably more sterile than the surgical instruments in the hospital.  I held myself to an extraordinary high standard in everything I endeavored to accomplish.

After having my first child, I would stay up hours after she went to bed, picking up toys, cleaning and sterilizing.  Eventually though, all of this striving for perfection caught up with me and started taking its toll on my health. I don’t necessarily think my perfectionistic qualities caused me to get sick, but I am quite certain the stress I placed on myself may have contributed.

By the time I had my second child, I didn’t have the emotional, mental, or physical energy to keep up with the high standards I consistently set for myself. Chronic migraines and chronic pain put the brakes on things, but not without a struggle.

The thing about perfectionism is that if we feel like we can’t do something with all the painstaking attention to detail that we normally utilize, then we don’t want to do it at all.  Just “letting” something “go” can cause tremendous anxiety. Life is very all or nothing, black or white, for us. There is no “little bit at a time,” “winging it,” or “grey area.” This has probably been one of the biggest struggles in my experience with chronic migraines and chronic pain.

Messes, clutter, and lack of order drive me batty! I get so much anxiety from it, I often feel completely paralyzed. I think the anxiety is worse now because the price of cleaning house or engaging in any activity the way I prefer typically ends in several days of recovery, but the result of just “letting it go” can bring on even more anxiety. It’s just another choice I have to make in the checks and balances of life with chronic pain.

We have a long bar counter that extends off the kitchen. My fiancé somehow finds a way to cover every square inch of that counter with…crap. I’m talking 10+ feet of junk mail, kids’ toys, and random odds and ends cluttering that counter from one end to the other.

When I walk in the house and see that nightmare of a counter, I feel like I can’t breathe.  I have asked, begged, and pleaded with him to stop. I have taken on the task of cleaning all the crap off that counter, just for him to do it all over again. I have tried various organization systems to no avail.

I actually started to wonder if he wasn’t deriving some kind of sadistic pleasure from triggering such intense anxiety in me, but in all actuality, I think he just doesn’t get it, by no fault of his own. Maybe it was the difference in how we were raised. His mom kept their house immaculately clean and organized, but I grew up with 3 siblings and all the chaos and clutter that comes with 4 children living under one roof. Regardless of how we were raised, there are probably a lot of people (maybe most people) that can walk by a cluttered counter and not have a full blown anxiety attack.


How Perfectionism Impacts Migraine

Thinking about the personality differences between my fiancé, other people I know (both healthy and ill), and myself prompted me to consider whether or not my personality may have predisposed me to chronic health problems.

Dr. Gokani of the Zira Blog, a recovering perfectionist that has spent over 10 years treating migraine patients, asks this important, yet controversial question:

“Is it possible that your reactions to stress, the nature of your moods, and your general mannerisms may be the cause of your headaches?” 

In Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life, she asserts:

“Migraine headaches are created by people who want to be perfect and who create a lot of pressure on themselves.”

In 1963, Dr. H.G. Wolf described a “migraine personality” composed of the following characteristics:

• “ambitious,”
• “successful,”
• “perfectionistic,”
• “rigid,”
• “orderly,”
• “cautious,”
• “emotionally constipated,”
• and “driven.”

Some people argue that this concept of a “migraine personality” puts blame on the person for his or her illness, reminiscent of the 19th century “madwoman in the attic,” while others find a sense of empowerment from looking inward and identifying a potential cause that can be modified.

Rachel Cooke, author of an article titled Migraine and Me would rather blame migraines on modern life and asserts that migraines (or perhaps, the number of migraineurs) is on the rise, with over 600,000 blogs dedicated to migraines.

What do you think? Can you identify with the migraine personality?


Personally, I think there may be some merit to the idea that our personalities contribute to disease and illness. For obvious reasons, I certainly identify with the characteristics of the migraine personality too.

Regardless of whether my migraines have been caused by having a one-eyed, one-horned, perfectionist, people-pleaser renting space in my head, I can be thankful to my migraines for forcing me to STOP — to stop and consider how much energy I have directed inward to nourish myself, versus the energy I have devoted to external factors.

I know now that I am enough, without over-extending myself to people and tasks. You are enough too.


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