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Self-Acceptance Through “Imperfectionism”

For most of my life, I was known as a perfectionist. I got straight A’s, was the President of multiple clubs and participated in every extra-curricular activity that I could. Like many of us, I was convinced that being “perfect” at as many things as possible would make me the best person that I could be. However, over my years at Laurier, that has all changed. Now, I prefer to strive for what I call “imperfectionism”, and I’m a whole lot happier for it.

What is Imperfectionism?

Imperfectionism is the word I have chosen to represent the antonym of perfectionism. As such, it is useful to review what perfectionism really means. Perfectionism is defined by Joachim Stoeber, author of The Psychology of Perfectionism, as “striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance, accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations.” In other words, perfectionism is an extreme behaviour that often brings about increases in negative thinking, criticism and other harmful attitudes. In turn, imperfectionism is the antidote to these tendencies. I define imperfectionism as a state of acceptance for oneself, a recognition that perfection is unrealistic and that high standards and authenticity should be prioritized over an illusion of flawlessness.

But Isn’t Perfection a Positive Thing?

Most of us grew up hearing the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” and were encouraged to strive for perfection in all that we did. While our caretakers and teachers certainly had good intentions, this notion holds significant potential to be harmful. For a lot of people, practice doesn’t always make perfect. Someone who struggles in math may practice endlessly to achieve a B grade, while someone for whom math comes naturally may easily get A’s. Similarly, people who work to support their families will not have the same amount of time to study as those whose education is already funded, and as a result, the amount of preparation they are able to put towards a test may be lower. These are two of countless examples of why the myth of perfection is harmful: it just isn’t feasible for the vast majority of people, especially for those who have lower privilege.

Furthermore, striving for perfection often comes with negative side effects. Rather than doing one’s best, perfectionism breeds a mental state with a result-driven focus. Someone could get “perfect” grades on a test by using a test bank or other methods that defy academic integrity, whereas someone who studies hard and does their best may only get an 80%. One person cheated while the other truly learned something; yet, unless the first person gets caught, perfectionism has led to a system where they will receive higher praise, marks and recommendations than their peer. Not only does this create a system where unethical behaviour goes rewarded, but it also sends the message to the second person that their absolute best wasn’t good enough. This can lead to depression, low self-esteem and myriad other mental health challenges. Reinforcing so-called perfection in modern day society is perpetuating a broken system that supports a singular definition of perfection, measured by quantifiers such as 100% grades on academic tests. This is not only untrue but also minimizing to the many cultures and individuals who define excellence differently.

The Myth of Perfection

Ultimately, the reason that perfectionism is unhealthy is that perfection does not exist. The ideas of perfection are rooted in colonial and Eurocentric beliefs about a singular, objective reality that only represents the viewpoint of privileged European white men. These are not only unattainable ideals, but they are concepts that reinforce hegemonic power relations and discount the voices of so many diverse people whose voices and perspectives deserve to be heard just as strongly as those following Western standards. In many collectivist cultures, group cohesion is prioritized over individual results. In Indigenous communities, fostering relationships between Elders, others and nature are demonstrative of a job well-done. By perpetuating perfectionism as a cultural ideal, we are excluding the value systems of so many prominent cultures and people in our society, and this minimization is not something I wish to reinforce.

Authenticity and Excellence

Just because I recognize that perfection is not an achievable endeavour does not mean that I value quality work any less. Rather, by acknowledging that there are multiple definitions of success, I remain open to feedback and maintain a constant growth mindset. I still get straight A’s and lead clubs, but I do so because I genuinely love the content I’m learning and the clubs I run, not because I feel the need to prove myself for the sake of a number on a piece of paper. More importantly, I’ve recognized that the “imperfect” parts of me are still valuable. The wrinkles around my eyes are memories of smiling so hard that my face hurts. My clumsiness is a part of me that makes my friends laugh and can bring joy. The subjects I struggle in are really opportunities to learn more and become a more capable person.

By embracing imperfectionism, I learn and grow every single day, because I know that there is no end goal of “perfect” where my growth will stop. I thrive in my roles as a student, friend and human being by recognizing diverse viewpoints and believing that there is always room to improve. I’m more honest with the people in my life because I don’t feel pressure to hide behind an artificial wall of perfection, making me a more authentic human being. I support my own mental health by always doing my best and knowing that my best is always enough for me. Above all, I have found self-acceptance in imperfectionism, and I hope that you will too!

Sarah Katherine

Wilfrid Laurier '21

Sarah is a 4th year Music Education student at Laurier University. She is passionate about wellness, education, singing, and writing, and hopes to make a difference in the world through the integration of her passions. 
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