Why Perfectionism Is Not Your Friend
by Richa Gupta
In today’s society, perfectionism has a positive connotation to it. People with mediocre grades or cluttered drawers wish they were a perfectionist, so that their innate traits would straighten out everything and make their lives ‘perfect’. People wish they were a perfectionist so that they’d have an ‘eye for detail’.
As a perfectionist myself, I’d like to tell all these people to stop. And just so you know, perfectionism was behind the bouts of anxiety and sudden panic attacks I’d get over (in retrospect) inconsequential problems. Yes, perfectionism is a reason behind my achievements and leadership positions, but I think it’s taken from me a lot more than it could ever give back.
Perfectionism is like a prison, which chains you from happiness and self-satisfaction. One of its most apparent downsides is the fact that it never lets you be proud of yourself: if you win a competition, great! Rejoice for a few minutes, and then start researching new opportunities the moment after. And at the same time, it makes you wallow in your failures all the more. So, perfectionism is a perfect recipe for constant disappointment and perpetual dissatisfaction. Furthermore, it became utterly commonplace for me to define my worth based on my list of accomplishments. My definition of ‘success’ was one-dimensional and narrow-minded, and was ironically setting me up to fail.
Moreover, perfectionism takes us away from our friends, and severs our social relationships. I used to have a highly calculative approach to friendships, in which doing and taking favors were like a bargain in a shop. Owing a friend too much would make me feel indebted in some way, while a friend owing me too much would make me purse my lips and shake my head. But let’s face it: no friendship or relationship is founded on equality or math. Rather, it’s based on love, support, joy, and kindness. And trying to shake these foundations would only compromise the quality of my relationships, and would increase my social isolation.
But this isn’t the only way perfectionism affected my social life. Most perfectionists share a common trait: they’re reluctant to (and even fearful of) open up about their vulnerability. They don’t want people to know of their fears, or their disappointments, and definitely not their failures. If they feel like they need to confide in someone, they’re afraid of being judged (although an overwhelming majority of those we talk to would never judge us!). Hence, plenty of food for conversation and relationships is consumed by a perfectionist’s inner fears, thereby leaving him or her ensnared in a vicious cycle. Furthermore, quite a few perfectionists expect those around them to uphold the impossible standards set by them (although this wasn’t the case for me).
As said by Professor Tracey Wade (of the School of Psychology, Flinders University, South Australia), “While it's fine to have aspirations and to set standards, the pursuit of perfection can sometimes be our downfall”. This is absolutely true—also because perfection does not and cannot exist in our chaotic universe! A bookshelf may seem perfectly aligned, until you notice that one book is half a millimeter out and has pages poking in different directions. A dress may seem immaculate until you wear it and realize that a thread is sticking out. The world is naturally untidy, and being a perfectionist is already losing half the battle.
This is why I’m telling you right now: perfectionism is not your friend. It may seem attractive or appealing at first, but its worth starts deteriorating incredibly fast. It ties you in knots and makes you terrified of the simplest things—especially failure. And once you’re terrified of failing, you avoid trying out new things (because you know that no one can be perfect at something he/she has just tried!), such as swimming or sketching or even gardening! Yes, perfectionism encourages you to excel at a field you’ve established yourself in, but it subtly closes all other avenues to intellectual, creative, and athletic fulfillment.
Perfectionism is hard.
It took me a while to identify the cause of my anxiety and unhappiness, and… well, my battle with perfectionism is an ongoing struggle. I’m still trying to find other ways to define myself as a person, and am still trying to lower my standards. The talks I’ve watched that tell us to embrace failure have definitely been helping, as have the stories of wildly successful people. And I’m still on the path to self-love! I’ve learnt that self-love can be one of the most beautiful treatments in this world. Rewarding myself for doing well on a small test is something I’d never do; but now, I praise myself, I tell myself that I’m proud of my efforts. For me, self-love isn’t steamy bubble baths, nights of binge watching or tubs of mocha ice-cream. It’s telling myself that I’m good enough, and that I don’t have to set unrealistic standards to feel happy about myself. Rather than comparing myself to others, I now compare myself to the person of my past (clichéd as it may sound). Sure, I still set big goals for myself—but now, I’m learning to appreciate the beauty and love I pick up along the journey, and the lovely people I may meet along the way.