The Peril of Perfectionism

As did many of my peers, I grew up with a necessity to be the best.

I do not know at what age the pulsing, constant reminder that I had so much still to do, so much to achieve, so many boxes to check off my mental list began. My parents instilled in me early on to work hard, and to always be my best, however, it was my own convolution of the idea of “best” that led to many years of telling myself I had not yet become it. And, as the years went on, I began to fear that I never would.

The most prevalent area this perfectionism manifests itself in high school teens is in academics; students feel that they must get straight As or they will never get into a “good” college, and will not get a “good” job. They believe this devastating chain of events is a reflection of their failure to do the one thing they were supposed to do -- be a good person.


That is the mental chain I saw people face constantly, that I faced constantly, and it is devastating and debilitating and incorrect.


This flawed psychology can extend to far more than academics; if you’re smart, you’re not skinny enough, you’re not athletic enough, you’re not outgoing enough, you have sex (slut!), you don’t have sex (prude!). It seems trivial, to complain about social standards, but the inability to escape from constant criticism given by the one person who knows how to hurt you most -- yourself -- can be crippling.


It is easy for one to examine my upbringing and dismiss any claim of difficulty in my life. And, in a sense, he or she would be correct. I have never been a victim of racial bias. I have never had to wonder if there would be food on my table. I have never even taken the bus to school. And many of the people I went to school with looked like me, grew up in similar families and situations as I did. However, self-imposed pressure to be perfect can become just as much a concern as one of these aforementioned issues. A September 2014 article from The Cut cites the Review of General Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association, in saying that, “Perfectionism can be devastatingly destructive, leading to crippling anxiety or depression, and it may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide”.


While my own perfectionism never reached these extremes, I cannot say I did not witness the downfall of others. I reserve the freedom to say that this is a relevant difficulty despite my cushy upbringing, that this is a societal problem, because it should not be standard for a fifteen-year-old girl to know the hidden meaning of pants in the summer and thick, rubber bracelets stacked up someone’s arm. Seventeen-year-olds shouldn’t wonder if no response to a text means the person on the other end just fell asleep, or worse. I shouldn’t know that a medium-sized apple is 70 calories.

Due to the perfectionistic nature in a large portion of our population, people pressure themselves not only to go above, but also beyond. We as a society have an obsession with being perfect, but also special. We hold ourselves to extreme standards, and then get angry when we do not deviate from them in a unique way. According to this ideology, you could be skinny, beautiful, brilliant, athletic, and in love -- and there would be hundreds more where you came from. There is extreme pressure to be special, yet “special” is unattainable when you are also crucified if you do not conform.

At the end of my junior year of high school, I was forced to look in the mirror of my past, staring into a sea of thirteen-year-old faces as I addressed the eighth-grade students at my beloved all-girls school. In a joking, slightly self-deprecating manner, I warned them of the things to come in their long-awaited high school years. However, it was as I approached the five minute mark of my speech that I ceased to speak to them, and rather, attempted to convince myself.


“You will learn to love yourself. You will learn to accept your flaws. You will learn to forgive yourself when you do wrong. And the moment that you fall in love with yourself is far more rewarding than that when any other person does.”


It sounds like a load of bullshit, especially to an audience of thirteen-year-old girls who most looked forward to having a boyfriend in high school. But I meant it. I grew up very serious about school, with peers constantly telling me I was a “hardo” and my purpose was to go to Harvard or Yale. I did not apply. And that may seem incredibly unimpressive and basic to you, and I’m sure it fell on deaf ears that day, but I learned to love myself. I learned that I would be okay even if not always following “the plan”. I learned that sometimes our bodies, our beings, are not a natural poetry, but prose. Life is literature -- a story, honest, and not for show -- like The Old Man and the Sea. Well-loved, and sometimes it’s hard to see why, but cherishing and embracement of it is what makes it special.