WHEN I was 16, I got the grades to go and study law a year earlier than my peers. When the piece of paper arrived confirming my efforts had been rewarded, that I’d be going to university a few weeks after my 17th birthday, I was ambivalent. I should have been elated. Relieved even. But I was already thinking about what I’d need to do now to get a first. I yanked the bar so high for myself so quickly that I lost all perspective.

I’d given no consideration to getting to know people and no thought to getting to know a new city or what I could get out of university other than my academic fix. It may come as no surprise, and perhaps with a little schadenfreude, to learn how completely and utterly pear-shaped this plan went. I was wholly unprepared for this next, independent chapter of my life.

I didn’t like the city. I didn’t know how to be one of many in a room full of the best students. My sense of identity, which was/is wrapped up in my achievements, disappeared. I hated the course, I didn’t make time for friendships, I agonised over getting things exactly right in my coursework to the point I would second guess everything I wrote, and – predictably with my need for control – my eating disorder showed up again.

I wanted everything to be perfect, and it wasn’t even close. There were many good things, but I couldn’t see them because everything other than a gold-star experience was pointless and meaningless. I didn’t have the skills to deal with my situation, no teachers to coach me, or family to rely on for advice. A total mental implosion followed. I was advised to take a year out to get well.

Rather than face what would be tantamount to personal failure, I quit my degree and left the city. My relationship fell apart, I stopped talking to my new friends, and sealed the experience away. For a decade, I couldn’t go back without feeling haunted by that shame. The fear of looking stupid, of not being the very best, of saying the wrong thing, has shaped my life. Rather than taking the opportunities that have come from hard work, I’ve turned them down because of the risk of failure, of not doing a perfect job.

I’m not alone in this. Some of the greatest novels ever written have gone to landfill, theories that would leapfrog us into the future have languished in drawers, dismissed by their creators. Henry Darger’s pictures never had a viewer. Monet shredded his watercolours.

This is the difference between private and public self: I’ve spent years critiquing binaries that harm groups, but my view of myself has always been binate all-or-nothing thinking. It’s been selectively biased toward the negative, swimming in “shoulds”, “musts” and “can’ts, meaning that’s all I’ve ever been able to see. If it wasn’t an A, it was an F. If it wasn’t spotless, it was filthy. If I didn’t win, there was no point in taking part.

Feeling like a failure is psychic death. The need for absolute perfection, to be the best, to be recognised as highly competent, has shaped almost all of my decisions, and it’s closed more doors than it has opened.

Some people can harness their drive positively. I can’t. Well, not yet. For many, their perfectionist tendencies allow them not just to achieve, but to enjoy the accomplishment. That’s never been me. Perfection is a narcotic. The next hit, the need for things to be just so, dictates everything. It’s a riptide pulling against the things my heart wants.

Those of us with the comfortingly named “neurotic” type of personality never have that gratification. We never achieve our goals, because we are never done, never satisfied with what we’ve done. We constantly raise the bar, expecting more from ourselves others. When standards aren’t met, we’re disappointed, frustrated, angry. Our need for perfection doesn’t serve us or those around us.

I completely burned out last November, and it’s only since I’ve started examining the behaviours that led to this crisis that I’ve begun to see the lifelong pattern of harmful behaviour. Some people are able to channel those desires in an entirely positive direction, inspiring in them an incredible work ethic. I’ve had moments like that: many of the skills I have, such as baking, knitting, sewing and cooking, have come from intense practice driven by early frustrations. But there is no off switch for me, and no compromise. If I hadn’t passed my driving test first time, I would have been so desperately ashamed I probably wouldn’t have retaken it. Intellectual humility is something I’m learning now, better late than never because I see what my inflexibility is taking away from me.

So many of the challenges I’ve experienced in my life so far are the result of this warped thinking. In every area of my life, I’ve demanded and expected the highest of myself, putting all my effort into reaching an unattainable ideal. Logically, I know it’s ludicrous to expect to be a perfect mum and a perfect spouse and a perfect boss, but that reptilian brain is demanding.

Getting things wrong haunts me. Mis-spelling a word in a test 25 years ago still prickles, a malapropism during an interview chimes clear in my memory. If I don’t reverse park perfectly first time I flush so intensely, I have to roll the windows down.

It’s daunting because this behaviour is fundamental to my way of being in the world. I’ve behaved in this way for as long as I can remember. It’s tough to confront the idea that the things you think make you “you” are actually causing you harm and to blame for much of your challenges in life. I think of it kind of like fossil fuels. They’re damaging to me and those around me. In short, they’re unsustainable, and an alternative must be found.

Understanding perfectionism from a psychological perspective has become a skeleton key to unlock doors on traits and incidents that were previously separated from the whole. I’m back to where I was before I lost my way, but there’s some critical rewiring to do to stop another burnout. I’ve learned perhaps the most important lesson of my life: good is better than perfect and done is better than perfect because perfect doesn’t exist.