How to deal with perfectionism

arjai101 asks: I’m a perfectionist, but only about one thing: my grades. I feel like my grades are all I have and all I’m good at. People don’t know me for being pretty or nice. They know me for picking things up fast and always knowing something about a subject. As a result, I constantly have this pressure of feeling like I have to be perfect. If I get so much as less than 100%, I tear myself to pieces. It’s an awful feeling. At the same time, I like getting perfect scores. I especially like getting them without trying – it makes me feel good about myself and it makes me feel special. I hate getting grades that are just a 96% or a 99%. It really hurts me, like my whole world is falling apart. And when I express this sensation to my parents or my friends, they tell me I’m being selfish and arrogant, and that I’m overreacting. I can’t help that it bothers me so much. I can’t help that I hate my being in those moments. What’s wrong with me? How can I deal with this?

Hi arjai101 –

Perfectionism is a funny thing.  On one hand, of course it feels best to do something perfectly.  If I chase a squirrel, I want to catch it, not ‘come close.’  If Handsome offers me a treat, I want to eat the whole thing, not part of it.

But perfectionism can be a problem too.  We can get so focused on needing a perfect result that we lose the ability to enjoy what we are accomplishing.

Like with your schoolwork – although it often doesn’t look it, the reason to go to school is to learn things.  And if you get a 96% on a test, then it looks like you’ve learned a lot.  (And we all know, it’s possible to get a 100% on a test while you still have a lot to learn!)

So why the perfectionism?

Well, I’d argue two things.  One is great, and the other… not so great.

The great one is that you’re surrounded by people who are satisfied with mediocrity, and you don’t want to be that way.  You are a superb student, and enjoy the game of succeeding at it.  It’s fun to be the best at something, and it’s fun to challenge yourself to be your best, or even better.  That sort of perfectionism is what leads people to be great artists, thinkers, athletes… all that.

The not so great one is just what you said, “I feel like my grades are all I have and all I’m good at.”  Because of this, if you make less than a great grade, you’re seeing yourself as less than a great person!  If others only see you as smart, then they’ll see you as nothing if you don’t get the great grades (or at least that’s the way you’re imagining them).

The problem with this is that.  arjai101, here’s my bad news:  No One Is Perfect.  At least in any measurable way.  There’s simply no such thing.  Look at the best athletes in the world – they’re great, but there’s always the potential for someone to be faster, stronger, or more coordinated.  Maybe you could argue that Mozart wrote a perfect piece of music, but that didn’t mean that he was perfect in all of his life, or even that everything he wrote met his highest standard.  A mathematician can come up with a perfect theorem, but they can’t be perfect.  Not in any measurable way.

But there’s another way of looking at it, arjai101.  Which is that actually, you are perfect.  You are exactly the person you are, and in that, you can’t be any less perfect than a newborn puppy or Albert Einstein.  If I were to meet you, I wouldn’t see flaws – I’d see a human who I’d want to play with, and maybe get a treat or a tummy rub from.  If you didn’t want to do those things, I’d still not see you as imperfect, just as uninterested.  You’re perfect, just like a rock is perfect, or a plant, or the sun.  You’re just what you are.

And if you can just realize this, that you’re not only perfect, but that you’re amazing (and you are), then the pain of a 96% grade won’t be so bad.

But I want to ask more of you than that.  I want you to let the others at your school see your other qualities.  You don’t think you’re pretty?  Well maybe you have other lovable qualities.  You don’t think you’re valued for being nice?  Well perhaps you could do some nice things, and change that.  If you become seen for other things than just your ability to ace tests, you’ll find this stress reduce even more.

But here’s the big thing – I don’t want you to work any less hard!  I still want you to aim for that 100% grade.  And when you get it, you should feel proud and excited.  All I want is that, at the times when you don’t quite reach your goal, you don’t feel like nothing.

Because you’re anything but.



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