‘Okay with just O.K’: Letting go of the need for perfection

by SEA Wave
SEA Wave - Perfectionism
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By: Jordan Chua


As someone in her final year of university, two years of which had been spent keeping up with online classes throughout the pandemic, I feel the pressure of graduating with high marks getting heavier by the day. No one is forcing me to reach for high achievements, but I personally can’t deny that a good academic track record would boost my chances of getting good opportunities in my future career. Not to mention the happiness I would feel knowing that four years of effort, if not my entire academic career, has led me to the top.

Aiming for more is all well and good: reaching for your dreams motivates you to pursue challenges that will help you grow and can provide direction in your life. Just as the caterpillar labors over building a cocoon to become a strong butterfly, dreams give us reasons to pursue life beyond the tiny world that we started in, challenges and all. But it’s only natural, then, that if achieving can bring us happiness, failing our attempts at achieving brings a sharp sting to our resolve. The disappointment can be crushing and we are tempted to forego trying again just to avoid that sting.

I thought that I outgrew that mentality and stopped letting my fears and past failures keep me from moving forward. Indeed, in a way, I am rarely paralyzed by such fears anymore. But I didn’t notice that the fear of failure still controlled me in other ways: instead of paralyzing me, it forced me to keep on walking and working, even when I needed to rest, and parades as ‘diligence,’ ‘achievement,’ and ‘sacrifice.’

Perfectionism and overachieving doesn’t only hurt your self-esteem and mental health; it hurts others around you.

Some of us may have already heard about, and know well, that overachieving can hurt your self-esteem and mental health. When our entire value hangs on a perfect record, a winning streak, even the smallest of ‘failures’ feel a hundred times worse. It becomes more upsetting when things do not go our way, as things often do. But before you think that your mental health is a good price for good grades, know that I once thought that way, too. Overworking yourself isn’t just hurting yourself. You also hurt others around you, especially the people that care about you the most.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfection when you think your intentions are pure; when you claim to achieve because you want to make your family proud or to challenge yourself into becoming more productive or successful. The warning signs and pain are warped into being a noble sacrifice that you must bear, or else you fail your pure intention, instead of what they really are: warnings that you’re on the wrong path.

Even outside of academics, overachieving and fearing failure become mentalities that drive our personal lives. Have you ever caught yourself overthinking about whether or not some stranger is giving you the stink eye? Or stopped yourself from voicing out your burdens to your friends because you didn’t want to trouble them or look vulnerable?

We can get caught up in the need to perfect ourselves to the point that we forget that failure is a part of human nature. Our relationships degrade and we become more secretive about our inner thoughts, hiding the parts of ourselves that we believe are ugly from the people whose approval we value the most. If you start going down this spiral, watch how quickly you can go from “I must perfect myself” to “if I don’t, what good am I to my family/my friends/this world?”. Not to mention the classic consequence of overworking by not spending time with family or friends.

Imagine that someone you deeply care about is in this situation: forcing herself to work, stretching herself thin over unending workloads and neglecting her physical and mental health. Watch as she changes before your eyes, becoming quieter or duller and always having her eyes on her phone as she awaits the next deadline. Would you feel pity or worry as she continued to hurt herself and refuse to be helped? Love is a double-edged sword, especially when the one you love doesn’t love herself.

You can push yourself for passion, and you can just as easily push yourself out of fear.

It might be obvious by now that overachievement and trying to be perfect are strongly linked to fear instead of passion or joy in what we do.

In hindsight, when I was a university freshman, I thought that I was ready to learn. But I was missing a key component to that: I wasn’t ready to be wrong. I wasn’t ready to get Cs or Bs. I wasn’t ready to not be at my best all the time, for both genuine mistakes on my part, and ‘mistakes’ from factors totally out of my control.

Was my need for perfecting my grades, even down to the recitations, coming from true passion for learning and understanding that I was a student, and therefore ready to learn? Or did it come from anxiety, the need for control of my life, and a hatred for letting go? When I didn’t get things right the first time, was I looking forward to learning from my mistakes and trying again, or was I resenting myself for making an error that I can’t undo?

Have you been so excited to prove yourself or impress others that you eagerly take on any kind of task? It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that you can definitely do everything, perhaps because it satisfies your personal desire to be adept and reliable, or to be impressive to your peers.

I’m not advocating against being proactive, but before you’re tempted into volunteering for yet another assignment or pursuing a project, evaluate the workload you already have. Do you honestly think that you can comfortably spend time and attention on this? I emphasize ‘comfortably,’ because free time is not freely-spent.

There’s an attitude I’ve seen in others where free time is confused for ‘available time.’ That is, if you’re not working, then you can work. Don’t fall into this trap: value your time, especially the hours that you have for yourself. Regenerate. Ground yourself. You might get antsy, but these breathing spaces give you the opportunity to look back on your intentions. Why are you doing all of this? Is it because you value what you do? Or because you’re afraid of failure and disappointment?

Besides, when you’ve stretched yourself too thin across multiple responsibilities, your entire performance suffers. So, it’s not even going to produce the results that little perfectionist goblin in your head wants.

The people that care about you being perfect don’t care about who you really are. And yes, “those people” includes yourself.

I have had the good fortune to have never met someone who cared only about me being perfect. I was lucky to be surrounded by understanding and supportive people that would celebrate my achievements with me and also see me as a person.

But there was – and is – someone who does want me to be at nothing but my best, who hinges my entire value (think: twenty years of living, thinking, and doing!) on even the smallest of failures: myself.

There’s a popular saying, often said with a self-knowing sigh, that goes: “We are our own worst critics.”

I would like to change this a little: critics have a criteria, a set of rules and guidelines that even the worst of them are meant to have. At least the worst critics therefore have their reasons to nitpick. Should you ask them to elaborate on their score, they will give a probably-indecipherable but, to them, totally reasonable explanation. Unfortunately, I don’t have any criteria for myself: no rationale or semblance of an argument as to why I look down on myself and everything I do. Only pure, relentless negativity.

Therefore, I am not my own worst critic; I am my worst bully. If the bully in your head is talking down on your efforts, I’ve found that it helps to remember that they have no bite to their bark. I’d tell that bully, “What do you know about what I can and can’t do? Sit down.” Take away the pedestal that your bully is standing on, and ignoring their rants becomes much easier. Insults don’t hurt as much from people who don’t matter.

There are many ways that someone can feel the pressure to perfect things, plus an infinite number of possible reasons as to why each of us forces ourselves into that pressure. The experiences I’ve written are not going to be the same for everyone else, and I don’t want to speak for anyone’s entire experience other than my own. But these are experiences and lessons that I’ve taken a long journey to learn – and I am still learning! I just hope that anyone in my position can take comfort in knowing that there are many people out there who have, one way or another, shared similar pains and fears as them.

If you have experienced any of the beliefs or feelings that I have written above, I’ll tell you what I wish I can tell myself again and again:

Learn to forgive yourself. You know the phrase, “We are only human,” and in this context, I mean that we are both naturally imperfect and a tiny human in a bigger picture. There is so much out of your control because you aren’t meant to control everything. As surely as you would forgive a first-grader for not knowing organic chemistry or a cat for not being able to fly, learn to forgive yourself for things that you cannot control.

Value yourself and your time. I’ve mentioned this before, but it warrants repeating. Accepting that your worth is beyond your failures is a lot to ask, and the journey won’t be easy, no matter how many loved ones you have on your side or therapy sessions you take, because you will be undoing a deeply-rooted habit. But the journey will be worth it. When you finally realize the things about yourself that make you wonderful, when you look upon yourself not with criticism or conditions, but admiration, it will be worth it.

Of course, even then, there will always be failures that sting. Things you really wanted to turn out well, ending in disaster. Where would our highs be without our lows, anyways? Nevertheless, you must keep on going. Take a break, regroup, and continue to look forward to the future. In the end, that’s all anyone can do.

Featured photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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