Coping With Perfectionism

If you were to look up “perfectionist” in the dictionary, I’m confident that a photo of me would be sitting right under the definition. Some might read that sentence and think I’m bragging, but in my eyes, my perfectionism isn’t something to boast about. In fact, it’s often what comes to mind when I think of my biggest weaknesses as a person.

Ever since preschool, I have been strongly preoccupied with the idea of making mistakes. While all of the other kids in my classes haphazardly scribbled all over their coloring books with broken crayons, I was so transfixed with coloring in the lines that it consumed me. As I progressed to elementary school, I became intensely discouraged with myself when I couldn’t read a word properly or finish my times tables quizzes quickly enough, despite the fact that my grades were top-notch. In my dance classes, every turn that I fell out of or leap that wasn’t quite high enough filled me with disappointment even though I was trying my best each day. 

As I approached high school, I learned that my grades and standardized test scores were actually starting to matter in regards to college admissions. Getting into the best universities would require me to produce the best work possible. Performing at a subpar or even average level simply wasn’t acceptable to me. I had to be the best. 

Every time I got a B or lower on an assignment, I tore myself down emotionally. I cried for hours on end, turned down plans to hang out with friends, and spent countless nights laying awake dwelling on all of my errors. 

When I finally graduated high school, I thought all of this pressure would go away. But as I entered the academically competitive environment at the University of Washington, my perfectionism only intensified. Now, even getting an A wasn’t enough for me. I had to get a 4.0 on every assignment, quiz, and test, or I was an utter failure to myself. This fear of messing up filled me with dread every time I attended a class or submitted an assignment. I felt miserable.

girl laying in bed feeling stressed out Photo by Kinga Cichewicz from Unsplash

As I reflect on how I arrived at this extreme level of perfectionism, I notice a striking theme throughout my academic and personal life. These standards that I’ve set for myself are self-induced and completely unrealistic. Throughout my life, I have been fortunate enough to have unconditional support from my family, friends, and many of my teachers. None of them would expect me to perform perfectly on every single assignment. So why exactly do I expect myself to be perfect?

If there’s one thing I’ve gained from the incredibly disheartening and stressful year that 2020 has been, it’s perspective. From a global pandemic to a tumultuous election, many people around the country are experiencing some of the most difficult times of their life. I have certainly had my fair share of mental health struggles due to being separated from my loved ones and unable to go outside safely for months. 

But these struggles have given me insight into the things in my life that actually matter. Maintaining healthy relationships, taking care of my physical and mental health, and having access to resources to protect myself and others during a pandemic: those are the things that are important. Getting 100% on every assignment I turn in or every test I take? Not nearly as important. 

If you struggle with perfectionism, you aren’t alone. Being a student at a competitive university can put a lot of pressure on a person. And experiencing that amid a global pandemic certainly doesn’t lessen any of the pressure. We can’t expect our perfectionism to go away overnight, but providing ourselves with some perspective is helpful, and has never been more important than right now. If you haven't been performing the “best” in any area of your life, that is more than okay. The standards that we set for ourselves are completely arbitrary. We can decide to be proud of ourselves for the hard work we’re accomplishing, even if we make some human errors here and there. 

As we approach the final weeks of the quarter, don’t forget to take breaks from your work, do activities that put you at ease, and communicate with people that bring you joy. Nobody expects you to be perfect, so there’s no reason why you should.