OPINION: Perfectionism is not ‘cute,’ it’s an obstacle

Ellie Myers 

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     I pitched this article idea. I looked forward to writing this article. I believe that the subject matter covered in this article is important to discuss. All of that is true, and I’m still writing it the morning it’s due.  

     I couldn’t cope with the idea that I might do a bad job, so I waited until the last possible second and let the panic of finishing the article give me the words I needed. This is how an alarming number of students get work done, many of whom are sincerely motivated to learn and grow. 

     There are a number of factors that go into procrastination, but the most prominent for me and many other people is perfectionism.  

     For those of you unfamiliar with the term, you have certainly experienced it before, but you may not have heard it accurately explained. Webster’s dictionary defines perfectionism as “the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person’s highest good,” or “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” 

     Just reading this definition should cause some alarm, because while we get used to thinking of perfectionists as being detail-oriented or committed to quality at best, and nitpicky or obnoxious at worst, it literally means an inability to forgive yourself for being human.  

     It can present itself in different ways. For me, it presented as 2-year-old Ellie perfectly coloring in a picture inside of the lines without a stray mark. It presented as 11-year-old Ellie losing a contest and deciding that if being human meant I was a failure, then I didn’t want to be human.  

     It presented as quiet crying in history class when I missed my first assignment, and louder crying over those same assignments later in the semester when I overthought each and every one of them. It presented any time I disappointed someone at work, whether I was in the wrong or not.  

     It presents itself every single day as constant overcorrecting and analysis of my flaws, because some part of me honestly believes that if I track down every single flaw I have, I can get rid of them. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this, because it also contributes to deeper mental health issues.  

     According to VeryWellMind, “having unrealistic expectations about the self can contribute to increased feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction, and difficulty coping with symptoms.”  

     The article continues: “Many people struggle with the negative aspects of perfectionism, and people with disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder may be even more prone to issues of perfectionism.” 

     I know that this is the case for many of the people around me. Having said this, I would like to redefine perfectionism based on a discussion I had with one of my teachers years ago: Perfectionism is being in an abusive relationship with yourself.  

     The voice in your head demands 100% from you in everything you do, which is impossible to achieve and painful to attempt. It is cruel, but at times deceptively sweet, because it always says that you can do better. It pushes you to a higher standard of quality in your work, tells you to be your best self and convinces you that your commitment to quality is useful, not awful.  

     Instead of telling you to be kind to yourself, because we’ve all heard that one before, I’d like to ask you to do something revolutionary: Screw up. Please. If it’s a choice between sleeping and finishing the minor assignment, sleep. Ask for more time. If they don’t give it, whatever. You’ll live.  

     If you just had a panic attack, don’t go to class. You can’t think straight right now anyway, so take a day to rest and not be productive. Don’t answer that question in class, because you’ve already answered a bunch and somebody else needs to pick up the slack.  

     Maybe you already know all of this, but I wish someone had said it to me. There is a lot being asked of you, and everyone expects you to complete their end of the bargain, but the fact is you will not be able to. You just won’t. So, choose where to fail now so you can be a healthier person later.