“It has to be perfect.” This statement has become a mantra in my mind, constantly ringing in my head, reminding me that I cannot afford to make a single mistake. The constant pressure I put on myself has become some sort of a defense mechanism against what I fear most: failure. This is because failure means judgement, losing things and people I care about, and most of all getting hurt. This fear controls me but it also paralyzes me. It makes me take extra precautionary measures in almost every aspect of my life, from major decisions to the little habits I’ve developed over the years. Due to this fear, I feel the constant need to gain complete control of my life to make sure that it’s perfect. This explains why I do so much planning, from plan A, plan B, and the list goes on. However, due to this need for control, it has become incredibly difficult for me to accept the uncertainties of life. Therefore, when it decides to give me the unthinkable, I’m completely unprepared. I overthink. It’s an endless spiral of “what if”s and the infinite possibilities of what could go wrong that eat away at you.
When I was first asked to write this article, I didn’t really know how to start. I thought about simply talking about the “science” of perfectionism, writing a poem, or maybe even a story. I avoided the prospect of writing about my own personal experiences in fear of what people may think. However, I realized that this is what people need to see: the ugly, unfiltered self of a person. This because at some point in all our lives, I’m pretty sure we’ve experienced similar struggles. Some of us may not be perfectionists or may not be as afraid to fail but we’ve all had things just completely go against us–most of the time, when we least expect it. As humans, it is also common that we invalidate our own struggles, labelling them as petty or an overreaction. Through this article, I also hope that we all gain a slightly better understanding of what perfectionism is and what it does to us.
Perfectionism is defined as the “need to be or appear to be perfect or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection” (Good Therapy, 2018). Generally, there are two types of perfectionism, based on an article done by the Harvard Business Review:
1. Excellence-seeking perfectionism: A person with this kind of perfectionism holds extremely high and unrealistic standards for themselves and others.
2. Failure-avoiding perfectionism: A person with this type of perfectionism is driven by the obsessive fear of failure to reach high standards and worries about others will think lowly of them if they fail to achieve it.
This kind of behavior, although often associated with work and academic outputs, can actually be applied in almost all areas of our lives such as housework, close relationships, physical appearance, sports, and health (Centre for Clinical Interventions, 2019). This means that having extreme perfectionistic tendencies could be extremely detrimental as it can affect one’s life in so many different ways. As shown in various studies, perfectionism is actually more harmful than it is helpful. While perfectionists can be highly motivated and conscientious, they are also more likely to experience stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression (Swider,et al., 2018 & Centre for Clinical Interventions, 2019).
Over the years, I’ve slowly gotten better at dealing with my fear of failure and perfectionism. It’s been a long and tiring process, and in fact, I’m still nowhere close to getting rid of it. Nonetheless, I’ve taken with me a few important lessons that have helped keep my fears from taking over.
First is to take it easy on yourself. While it is important to acknowledge your flaws and shortcomings, it is also equally important to give yourself recognition for the good qualities you possess. Take the time to reflect not only on the things you’ve done wrong but also the things you’ve done right. Ensure that you work on your failures but remember that self-improvement takes time. It’s a long and uncomfortable process and you must be patient with yourself.
Second is to accept the existence of uncertainty and focus on what you can do now. Although, that is so much easier said than done, it is an essential part of creating the balance between slacking off and perfectionism. There really is no such thing as having complete control of your life and things will never perfectly go to plan at all times. However, you must not let that stop you from enjoying the life you have. All we can really do is give our best in everything that we go through. Take everything one step at a time and then face the obstacles, should they come, once you get there. Worry about them then and not when you’re probably years away from experiencing it.
Finally, reach out for help when you need it. Sometimes, you really can’t do things on your own. You need people to help you carry that burden, to give you advice, and to somehow momentarily help you forget your worries. There are people out there who care for you, whether that is your family, friends, a partner, or teacher. They are willing to be there for you when you need it. All you have to do is ask.
To everyone reading this, you have an amazing life ahead of you! It will never be anything close to flawless, but believe me, there is beauty in imperfection. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to fail. The basis of your self-worth does not lie in how “perfect” you can become, whether that be in terms of work, academics, personal relationships, and many more. As long as you keep striving, and doing your best, it will be considered a life well spent.
1. Swider, B., Harari, D., Breidenthal, A., & Steed, L. (2018, December 27). The pros and cons of perfectionism, according to research. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-pros-and-cons-of-perfectionism-according-to-research
2. Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2019, October 24). What is perfectionism? Retrieved from https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Perfectionism
3. Good Therapy. (2018, August 3). Perfectionism. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/perfectionism