Life Lessons Story: Recovering Perfectionist

She now shares her strategies with therapy clients

Megan Bearce, LMFT is a “recovering perfectionist.” Recovering, she says, because “being a perfectionist never fully goes away.”

Megan’s perfectionism started early. “In kindergarten I was identified as high potential/high abilities, so all through my elementary years teachers would pull me out of my regular classroom.” They’d ask her to go to this next grade’s room for reading and this next grade’s room for math. When Megan did so, the students would ask, “Why is she in here?” and “Why does she get special treatment?”

“As an introvert, this singling-out was terrifying,” says Megan. In this Life Lessons story, Megan describes the sources of her perfectionism; how she learned to overcome perfectionist tendencies and eventually shift her career to a fulfilling role as a therapist; and how she now helps her clients, including overwhelmed women and teens, learn how to deal with their perfectionism.

Childhood expectations

Each time Megan was placed in the next grade’s classroom, her thoughts were simple: “I have to keep this up. I don’t want to disappoint my teachers.” These thoughts fueled her internal drive. “If I can keep busy and get this perfect, then I don’t have to think about the other things going on in my life.”

In high school, Megan preferred English literature and composition classes, but because of her mathematical proficiency, her teachers recommended math and business classes. “There was one class where you spent the year rotating through the different functions of a business – accounting, human resources, management, bookkeeping … and because I did well in math, my teachers would say, ‘You’re good at this.’ and ‘You should do that.’ There were always a lot of ‘you should’s.’”

Accounting major

“I remember clear-as-day my first college accounting class,” says Megan. “My professor said, ‘You’re really good at this. If you major in accounting, you can have a job wherever you want.’ I thought, ‘Isn’t that the goal? Maybe I should major in this.’”

Following her professor’s advice, Megan took classes toward an accounting degree “even though I hated every one of them,” she says. “What I did to make myself less miserable is take as many English classes as I could; anything but business.” Sure enough, because of her accounting proficiency and grades, “I got an internship at a really good firm, and I got a job offer before I was done with college.” She worked two years as an auditor at a CPA firm.

Megan proceeded to do what she was “supposed” to do, and took the grueling certified public accountant (CPA) exam. “I did well and passed all four parts of the CPA exam the first time, which is not easy to do,” she says. “Yet I would go to work every day not liking my job. There was an incongruence to my everyday experience.” To make the experience more enjoyable, Megan organized her firm’s volleyball league and planned the going-away parties. “I loved my coworkers, and I’m still friends with many of them today.”

Though being an auditor was not a good fit for Megan, aspects of the role were helpful later in her career. “As an auditor, you’re going into businesses and talking to people who don’t want to talk to you,” explains Megan. “You’re the outside person looking for things that are wrong.” Megan learned to communicate with people at all levels. “One minute I was talking to the chief financial officer, and the next minute I was talking to the accounts payable clerk. There were parallel dynamics that gave me really good skills for being a therapist.”

Greener grass?

Feeling discontent with her role, Megan, who was 23 and single, decided to escape Minnesota winters and seek employment in California. “I had friends there, so I worked with a recruiter who lined up interviews in accounting and finance with five companies. I got several job offers, and I took the one at 20th Century Fox. I thought that sounded fun and glamorous.”

However, Megan quickly learned that accounting is still accounting, even though she had “crazy Hollywood experiences. I was a seat-filler at the Emmy Awards because Fox hosted them that year. And because Titanic made millions of dollars at the box office, our entire department was treated to an all-expenses-paid vacation in Palm Springs.”

During her two years at 20th Century Fox, Megan observed women in higher-level positions who did not appear to like what they were doing, either. “They seemed miserable and they had no work-life balance.” When Megan was promoted to supervisor, it gave her the chance to help other people. “I liked that. The joke was that my office was the therapy office. The employees reporting to me would all come into my office wanting advice on everything.”

Personal reflections

To deal with her discontent, Megan took the online Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a psychological preference questionnaire that indicates an individual’s dominant personality traits. Megan’s result was INFJ – introvert, intuitive, feeling and judging. Those in the INFJ category, known as “the advocate,” want to make a mark on the world. One key trait of INFJs resonated with Megan: that they especially enjoy making concepts and theories that matter to them personally accessible to a wide range of people. “That was the biggest problem with auditing,” says Megan. “You’re analyzing things that happened six months to a year earlier. I felt there was no purpose in what I was doing. I liked being a mentor and role model, but I wasn’t changing lives or doing something that was meaningful.”

Megan explored INFJ professions, including therapist, teacher, religious leader, recruiter, human resource manager and project manager. Armed with what she’d learned, Megan started asking questions. “I have several in-laws that were therapists,” she explains. “One was the head of the counseling center at Amherst College, and two were social workers in private practice. I started asking, what do you like about your job? Do you like working in private practice? Do you like working in an institution?”

New focus: Clinical psychology

The answers she received helped convince Megan it was time for a change. In 2001, she began a master’s program in clinical psychology and then earned her LMFT licensure. “It’s a huge process,” she says. “It requires 3,000 hours of experience and two difficult exams.” As part of her training, Megan worked with diverse groups including gang members dealing with shame and disrespect, and teenage girls struggling with self-esteem, perfectionism and body image.

Perfectionism has been a common issue for overwhelmed professional women Megan has counseled. “I hear it a lot from lawyers and doctors,” says Megan. They say, “I made it this far doing what women couldn’t do before. I should like it more,” or “I should want to have another child.” Megan helps them explore their options. “Can you take what you’ve learned and apply it in a way that works better for you?” Megan also encourages them to try something temporarily; it does not have to be permanent. “A lot of people get stuck,” she says. “If they’re a perfectionist, it’s easier to keep doing what they’re doing than to try something new and fail, or to not be perfect at it the first time.”

Megan also has worked with gifted and high-achieving young women who are in prep schools or taking advanced placement (AP) classes. “They feel a lot of pressure to do everything,” explains Megan. “They feel they need to excel at everything they do, get into college, compete in sports …” She hears them say, “I’ve put so much time into this, I can’t quit. I don’t want to disappoint my parents or my coach.”

Megan tries to get them comfortable with changing their minds without feeling they’re disappointing people or making a bad choice. “I try to bring their parents in, if possible, and have a conversation together.” She often hears the child say, “I thought you wanted me to be in this activity,” and the parents say, “We thought you wanted to do it because you like it.” Megan says parents often are unaware that their child is struggling.

Lessons Learned

It’s okay to take risks. “In the past I felt like I had to know everything before I would go forward,” says Megan. She proved she is capable of taking a risk and succeeding when she wrote and published a successful book: Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When A Job Keeps You Apart.

Take time for self-care. “Self-care is really important,” says Megan. “Perfectionists have a running dialogue in their heads. It helps to do yoga and meditation. These activities are perfect for perfectionists, because you have to slow down your mind and not hold onto that one thought; watch it go away.” Megan has learned she needs down time, whether reading, traveling or practicing yoga. Taking time to do different activities helps to offset her perfectionism. She also asks her clients what they are eating and how they are sleeping. “It seems basic, but when these routines are out of whack, just that little shift can make a huge difference in how you feel.”

Don’t be afraid to try something different. “I listen to the words my clients are saying,” explains Megan. “Are they saying ‘should’? Are they using negative words? Is there a theme or pattern to what they’re talking about?” Megan says many people get stuck. “They feel that it’s all or nothing; it can be paralyzing.” She passes on a lesson she has learned, as a recovering perfectionist. “It’s okay to try something different. It doesn’t mean it’s permanent. You can do it on a temporary basis.”

Be a connector. “You never know who you’re going to meet who you can help, or who can help you,” says Megan. “I like connecting people with others they can benefit from meeting, or connecting them to resources. I like sharing my knowledge.”

Megan Bearce

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