I’ve always been somewhat of a perfectionist, but I didn’t know just how bad it was — until my last job landed me in therapy.
But let’s rewind.
It all started in the early part of 2016 when I was offered a remote “Solutions Consultant” job from a small company in the publishing technology sector. Although they were small, they promised me the largest salary I had ever received, a sparkling new Macbook Pro, and an all expense paid trip to England for an upcoming conference. Even though I secretly was uncertain about the job, I renewed my passport and signed the contract, ignoring the inner voice that was screaming, “This job is not right for you!”
Up until then I had worked remotely as a copy editor for a large publishing company, spending my days happily marking up pages and consulting my trusty Chicago Manual of Style handbook. My work was safe and comfortable, but the money was pretty terrible. Plus, my husband and I had just moved to Santa Barbara, California, where the cost of living was high (so high that you died just a little inside every time you wrote a rent check), which made an increased income a necessity.
The job came from the recommendation of a former co-worker who told me that the work was challenging, but great — and that the pay was worth all the long hours. I had only a slight idea what exactly I'd be doing (something about technical support to publishers who used the company’s software?), but I assumed that with some thorough training and asking a lot of questions, I would get on track at some point.
But after a week-long training session in Texas with my two co-workers, I realized immediately that I had made a huge mistake. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the work was too technical and impersonal; it was too much of a learning curve to go back and feel comfortable working on my own in California.
On the last night of training in Texas, I called my husband in tears, telling him that I had really messed things up. I chose the wrong path. He reassured me (as any good husband would) that it would just take some time, but that he had no doubt I would understand everything eventually. I rationalized that I was just nervous about the job and that everything would sort itself out.
After flying back home to Santa Barbara, I opened my laptop and started on a few tasks that my trainers had given me before I left. It was pretty apparent right away that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Of course, that’s a normal feeling anyone has when they start a new job (and I had certainly felt that before), but this was different. I had been extremely studious during my training sessions, taking notes and asking for clarification when something didn’t make sense, but nothing seemed to be clicking. For the first time in my career, my work didn’t come natural to me.
Because the job and all of its responsibilities were so far removed from any other job I’d ever had, any small mistakes I made felt like grandiose failures.
My need to be perfect at a job I didn’t even like (and wasn’t a good fit for) was taking over my life. I would cry constantly when a small task would take me all day. I would get so focused in on working that I would forget to eat lunch. I would often wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because I was nervous about a staff meeting where we had to give routine updates. On the weekends and evenings I would sometimes just lie in bed, wondering when my boss was going to fire me because he found out I was completely inept at what I was doing — even though in reality, I was doing just fine. In other words, I was a far cry from the care-free, confident woman that I once thought I was.
After a few months of this, I decided that I needed to seek out the help of a therapist. What I discovered in my work with her was that not only was I dissatisfied with the work I was doing (that point was obvious), but also that I didn’t want to just outright quit because I was afraid of what might happen. What would I do? What would people think of me? How could I give up the money?
Throughout my career I had always done freelance work on the side, mostly as a hobby, but things had started to pick up and I had gained a few new clients.
“Does that work make you feel happy and fulfilled? Why don’t you just do that?” my therapist asked me.
I immediately responded yes. A few seconds after, however, my perfectionist instinct was to squelch any opportunity for failure.
“What if I don’t make any money at it though? What if I fail?” I asked my therapist.
“But what if you don’t?” she offered.
As soon as she said it, I felt free. My world, which had been consumed of trying to be perfect at something I just wasn’t good at and didn’t like, completely changed. After a few more months of gathering more clients and getting a little courage, I put in my notice after working there for just nine months, even though I knew it wouldn’t look the best on a resume if my freelance venture failed.
Since then, I haven’t looked back — and I’ve never been happier. And while I won’t be able to shake the instinct to strive for perfection (my clients can attest to this), I try to make sure that it’s pursued in a healthy way.
Jamie Birdwell-Branson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Zillow, Elle Decor, BobVila.com, Today.com, and many others. She is passionate about gender equality in the workplace, books, and puppies.