On perfectionism

Merriam-Webster’s definition of perfectionism: “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially: the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”

Confession: I have been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember.

This isn’t a humble brag. Every website under the sun will tell you never to answer the all-too-common job interview question “what’s your biggest weakness?” with “perfectionism” because it isn’t supposed to be a weakness. It’s supposed to be something that helps you – that drives you – to work hard, get good results, and be successful.

And if I’m being honest, it has helped me. It’s what kept me up late, night after night, working on school projects even if they were worth only a small fraction of my grade. It’s what pushed me to take more classes than you were supposed to, to get that second or third job, to join another club, and to graduate early. Many of the things I’ve achieved, including the things I’m most proud of, were borne in some way out of my perfectionism. In that way it has been a blessing. It has continually pushed me further than I thought I could be pushed.

And in that way, it is also a curse. In high school, I lost enough weight to start missing periods due to stress. In college, my mental health sunk to its lowest lows due to the sheer force of self-imposed pressure.

There are countless projects that I never started because I couldn’t get past the first line. If it wasn’t perfect, why even write the second or third line? And when I have overcome this impulse, and finished something that wasn’t quite up to my standard, I’ve felt worthless. As much as perfectionism has helped me succeed, it has also been one of the biggest obstacles to my writing, to many other projects, and to my physical and mental health.

A lot of the culture today, especially American culture, romanticizes “the grind” – working hard, being perfect, succeeding at as many things as possible in as short amount of time as possible. I honestly don’t know if I think that is a bad thing or a good thing.

Sometimes I think it’s great – it instills the value of hard work in young people and inspires them to strive and thrive. I can just tell myself to pull up the bootstraps and work even harder, damn the consequences.

Sometimes I feel the opposite. I see the value in slowing down, performing self care, and cutting myself a little slack, especially regarding my own mental health.

Like I said, I honestly don’t know where I stand on this. It varies, day by day, hour by our, largely dependent upon how hard on myself or how kind to myself I am feeling in any given moment.

I do know that there’s more to the concept of perfectionism than meets the eye, and it can hold me back just as much as it pushes me forward. One of my biggest goals for my twenties is to answer some of these questions and figure some of these things out, because I think it will be the key to being more successful, but also happier and healthier.

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