Emerging from the dark prison that was my dorm room the day before my last final exam of the semester, I ran into a friend who was taking a study break. During our pleasant catch up chat about end-of-sophomore-year reflections and takeaways, she said something that stuck with me:
“There’s a fine line between beating yourself up, and pushing yourself hard to be better, and I don’t think I’ve found where that line is yet.”
It surprised me how relatable that was. It revived something that I’ve been pondering about for months: Is perfectionism something that we could overcome with enough grit and self-awareness? What’s my relationship with perfectionism? So here, in this moment of inspiration motivated by this memory and my steaming cup of tea, I want to unpack it a little.
First off, what is meant by perfectionism here? In particular, I mean the obsessive urge to optimize. For those familiar with Barry Schwartz’s book, Paradox of Choice, perfectionists are the “maximizers,” the type of people who persistently strive to make the best choices (while “satisficers” are able to settle with the good enough), at the expense of their overall happiness. Perfectionism of this kind leads to “better” choice outcomes but screams fragility and inflexibility. Many of us know all too well the painful, self-disparaging spiral that ensnares us when we fall shy of our expectations. It’s this self-critical downside of perfectionism that’s become a topic of way too much self-help content these days, and has now caught my attention, too.
So, I roughly fit the profile of your high achieving, perfectionistic, millennial-aged student. It goes without saying that arriving at where I am today took a whole lot of studying, and very little chill. I took my academic commitments very seriously and often beat myself up where I fell short. Then some articles about “excellent sheep” started to show up on my Facebook feed a few years back, which told me I was maximizing my life in the wrong way. Apparently, ceaseless striving for academic or material success is both misguided, unhealthy, and deeply unfulfilling, so this warranted a life pivot towards… being happy or something. Okay, I thought. I could be the enlightened college student who doesn’t get unduly stressed by grades and internships, and cultivates a healthy love of life since she’s above the little stuff. Surely enough, with time and effort since starting college, I did pretty well to reframe my situation this way. Now that I was able to take L’s with more grace, I started to think that I had cured my perfectionism.
Oh… silly you.
A lot has happened to me this past semester, and after all of its ups and downs, I realized that I didn’t “transcend” my perfectionism or anything like that — it just wore a different disguise. Sure, I don’t care as much anymore about maintaining a perfect GPA, but I care A LOT about being (and appearing to be) an emotionally healthy person and a good friend. When I upset someone or make some callous or careless decision I regret, it takes me FOREVER to stop dwelling on my guilt. Like everyone else, I screw up sometimes and I feel irrational feelings. But I think my preoccupation with trying to be that “enlightened college student” affords me a cruelly small margin of error. So there it goes — it took me a while to realize, but I’m still a perfectionist.
From all this, I realized one thing: I don’t think I can truly ever slice out perfectionism from my personality. By some weird law of conservation, I’ll always be holding myself up to some unrealistic standards in my life, whatever they may be. That sounds depressing, you might think. Well, just because I’ll always be somewhat of a maximizer doesn’t mean I’ll forever be cursed with the maladaptive, neurotic, and self-loathing part. I’d like to think it’s possible to set high expectations for yourself AND be forgiving of yourself when you don’t meet them (buzzword alert: self-compassion). Now that’s emotional maturity!
I’m being lighthearted at the moment, but really though: if we were only half as patient and accepting of ourselves as we are to our close friends, we’d be in so much better mental shape.
I’m going to work on befriending myself and my perfectionism, which is here to stay, I guess.