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Adebusola Abujade / Her Campus Media
Wellness > Mental Health

Almost Perfect–But Not Quite

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

“Almost Perfect” by Shel Silverstein

“Almost perfect… but not quite.”

Those were the words of Mary Hume

At her seventh birthday party,

Looking ’round the ribboned room.

“This tablecloth is pink, not white—

Almost perfect… but not quite.”

“Almost perfect… but not quite.”

Those were the words of grown-up Mary

Talking about her handsome beau,

The one she wasn’t gonna marry.

“Squeezes me a bit too tight—

Almost perfect… but not quite.”

“Almost perfect… but not quite.”

Those were the words of ol’ Miss Hume

Teaching in the seventh grade,

Grading papers in the gloom

Late at night up in her room.

“They never cross their t’s just right—

Almost perfect… but not quite.”

Ninety-eight the day she died

Complainin’ ’bout the spotless floor.

People shook their heads and sighed,

“Guess that she’ll like heaven more.”

Up went her soul on feathered wings,

Out the door, up out of sight.

Another voice from heaven came—

“Almost perfect… but not quite.”

-Shel Silverstein 

I take the most important test of my life tomorrow. 

I have, realistically, done everything I can to prepare. I have spent hours–no, days, at the library. I have spent my mornings on the phone with my tutor, while my roommate makes breakfast behind me, for months. I have browsed the Reddit forums on this specific test until the wee hours of the morning and I have crammed practice questions into every moment of every day that is not spent running the club I lead, doing schoolwork, or spending time exercising–lest I go insane. I have done well on practice tests. I have every right to feel confident. 

But I do not feel prepared. 

My parents used to read the poem above by Shel Silverstein to me at night, along with his other, more whimsical poems. I used to laugh at the antics of Mary Hume. The woman in the poem died without ever feeling satisfied. How could that be? And dissatisfied with such silly things?

Now, I fear, I face the same fate as Mary Hume. And it’s terrifying. And I’m writing this in the hope I am not alone. 

I am not a perfectionist when it comes to party decorations, handwriting, or cleanliness. I am instead a perfectionist when it comes to success. 

I have cried throughout the process of studying for the test I take tomorrow, but it is not because I don’t understand a specific problem or because I’m tired of hunching over a textbook. The only tears I have spilled have been from an intolerable frustration from knowing myself: knowing that no matter how much better I get–no matter how high above the national average my score falls–if I get even one or two questions wrong, I will not be happy. Almost perfect, but not quite. 

I fell victim to academic perfectionism before this test but now, it has taken over my life without mercy. A single question wrong on a practice test shows that the rest of the answers I got correct were flukes, not deserved. If I’m not smart enough to do well without faltering, I’m not smart at all. Almost smart–but not quite. 

While this perfectionism has been mind-numbingly present for the past couple of months, I’m starting to realize that it has always been inside of me, and it’s gotten me far–but right now it’s doing more harm than good. 

The club I lead cannot have a week where the meeting presentation is not planned or color coordinated. It cannot have an event that I have not planned to the minute. It cannot be a successful club if it isn’t flawless. 

My grades are not good if they are not some of the highest in the class. If I get a 99 on a paper, I will be happy, but desperately curious about where I lost that one point. Almost perfect, but not quite. 

The fact of the matter is that I, sometimes, can lose the ability to be happy with my work if I’m not careful. And that translates to being not happy with myself, like, ever. 

The worst part of my little perfectionism predicament is that if people don’t have the same unhealthy mindset as I do, they can’t take me seriously. 

People make fun of girls who are perfectionists, who get upset at a B-plus. And I get it, the people who flaunt their disappointment are not usually the ones struggling behind the scenes. 

I’m pretty quiet with my GPA and specific scores. If I am frustrated, I usually try to keep those thoughts in my head, where they’re just hurting me and not making other people feel insecure as well. But do you think I want to shake my head at a 92? To cry when I drop a point or two on my practice test? Do you think that’s something enjoyable? It’s a whole lot less controllable than people think. Almost perfect, but not quite. 

Because people who struggle with this usually keep quiet, I thought this was a problem that only I had. Turns out, it’s not. 

In a desperate Google about “how to stop being a perfectionist” yesterday, I stumbled upon a Times Magazine article that described the exact phenomenon I’ve felt for years: 

“In two decades covering American politics,  two journalists had interviewed some of the most powerful women in the nation — lawmakers and CEOs, professional athletes, and leaders of social movements. Time and again, they saw the same self-doubt: bright women with ideas afraid to raise their hands, speak up, ask for a raise or a promotion; that inexplicable feeling that they don’t own the right to rule at the top.”

I thought I was the only person in the world who experienced crippling self-doubt unless she was 100% sure she deserved the grades, scores, or letters of recommendation she had earned. But I’m not–and if you’re reading this, you’re not either. 

The article covers “feminine self-doubt” and how the feeling that, as a woman, you will never be quite good enough, often translates into crippling perfectionism. I cannot speak for women of color personally, but this phenomenon can apply to them as well, if not significantly more. 

Women apply for a promotion when they meet 100% of the qualifications. Men, on average, apply when they meet 50%

This quote from Hilary Clinton, a chronic overachiever in her own field, explains it all: “At this point in my career, I’ve employed so many young people…one of the differences is that when I say to a young woman, ‘I want you to take on this extra responsibility,’ almost invariably she says, ‘Do you think I’m ready?’ But when I ask a man, he goes, ‘How high, how fast, when do I start?!’

Why was I not surprised that the debilitating self-doubt stemmed from my gender identity? She’s almost perfect–but not quite. 

When I say perfectionism, too, I don’t mean high-achieving. I have always been high-achieving. There’s a difference between pursuing perfection and being a perfectionist. 

Natalie Dattilio, PhD, describes real and true perfectionism with the analogy of a monkey bar hovering above your head. 

 “If you’re a perfectionist, the height of the bar often isn’t really defined when you launch yourself into the air, and your brain is really sneaky. It’ll raise the bar no matter how high you jump, always whispering, ‘Ah, that just wasn’t good enough.'”

Per Dr. Dattilio, for perfectionists, there are no shades of grey when it comes to success. There is 100%, and there is 100% failure. There is no in-between. 

In my bouts of perfectionism, I am not good enough. Ever. My mom used to tell me that “fine isn’t good enough.”. She meant that in response to whenever I said I felt “fine,” emotionally or physically. Nowadays, all I can apply it to is my stupid test scores, my stupid grades, my stupid resume. That is not what she wanted. 
I have never felt such relief to find that Times article, and to find I was not alone. Dealing with perfectionism is a plight not often sympathized with. Boo hoo, you got an A- where you wanted an A? Poor little smart girl. Don’t you realize if I could be proud of myself for meeting expectations instead of exceeding them, I would?  If I could write a Her Campus article without having a clear outline for a perfect introduction, can’t you understand that I would?  I’m tired of it. Almost perfect–but not quite.

But now I know that my self-doubt is not a reflection of my own worth. It’s a reflection of not feeling good enough in a system that is meant to keep me down. For every wrong answer I gripe over on my last practice exam before tomorrow, there is a man who will show up to the same damn test doing half of the work I’ve done, with twice the confidence. 

I’m not going to let him do that anymore. This problem I deal with keeps me from loving myself and keeps me from being proud of what I do tomorrow, no matter the outcome. 

Not on my watch. 

Genevieve Andersen is the President of HCCU, as well as a co-Campus Coordinator. As President, she oversees the senior executive team, executive team, national partnerships, and assists with coordinating events. She manages meetings, recruitment, campus communications, and chapter finances and is one of HCCU's biggest fans. Since she joined the club in 2021, she has found a passion for writing on subjects like politics, law, feminism, environmental justice, and local features. Outside of HCCU, Genevieve is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, majoring in political science and French and minoring in journalism. Besides magazine writing, she has published and assisted with political science research, with her latest project involving international environmental policy being based in Geneva, Switzerland, where she worked with the United Nations Environmental Program and various European environmental NGOs. When she is not busy reading member's HCCU articles, you can find Genevieve on a ski or hiking trail, hanging out with her friends, playing with her dogs, or staring at her pet fish wishing he could be played with.