I grew up as a competitive perfectionist who achieved a lot at an early age. I got kind of depressed at my college of 40,000-plus because I was no longer a star student/athlete/actor, and if I couldn't be the best, I couldn't motivate myself to work very hard at all. In grad school, I went back into overachiever mode, and despite being stressed out and anxious a good bit of the time, I viewed my experience positively, since I accomplished so much. After a nasty breakup, I worked with an amazing therapist who helped me understand that my self-worth isn't based on achievements. I felt enlightened, I backed off the perfectionism for a bit, and my early accomplishments in my doctoral program were enough to push me through.
Fast forward to "real life," where objectively everything is great. I have an incredible relationship, a job that pays decently, great friends and lots of hobbies. The problem is that I can't get out of underachiever mode. Just like I did in college, I've gained weight, stopped working hard (putting in five-to-six-hour workdays) and let my negative emotions leak out into most aspects of my life. I've tried the middle-of-the-road approach, telling myself that moderation is the way to go, but without achievements to spur me on, I always end up falling off into laziness.
Part of me believes that perfectionism is unequivocally bad, but part of me wonders if it really is my happy place. Can I be a perfectionist and still be a good person? And if so, how do I get back into overachiever mode?
The Over-Under Achiever
You can’t achieve perfection, because perfection is subjective, and it changes for every culture and every person. You might think that you achieved perfection in grad school, but were you a Fulbright or Rhodes scholar? Was your thesis published in a peer-reviewed journal? You might have felt perfect in that moment, but did you know that Malala Yousafzai almost died from a gunshot wound to the face when she was 15 years old, but went on to write an internationally bestselling book and win the Nobel Peace Prize by the time she was 17? She’s currently attending Oxford University, the most prestigious and respected institution of higher education in the world. Where did you go to grad school?
Sorry, but I’m trying to make a point here. You might feel perfect one day, but then a jerk like me comes along and brings up Malala. So why bother? Why not just strive for a a good life based on your own standards? Striving for perfection only serves to keep you from being happy with what you’ve already got. Perfectionists aren’t inherently bad people, but who wants a friend who’s always trying to outshine or slyly compete with them?
Adults pit children against each other in athletics and academics to score accolades for their school districts, and they don’t think about how they’re actually building an anxious adult who won’t be able to enjoy life because they’re too busy comparing themselves to others. Think of all the things you haven’t done and the people you haven’t connected with because they didn’t serve your goal of perfection. That is no life to live, and now that you’re an adult, no one is judging you in that way. Most other adults just want to be respected by their brethren; they don’t care about your GPA or if you can throw a tight spiral. Do the things you love because you love them, not because they help you attain a mythical social status that actually doesn’t exist in this town. While you and your perfect friends are brunching, someone else is definitely making fun of everything about you.
Perfection is a fool’s errand equivalent to pushing a boulder up a hill. Life is not an episode of “Black Mirror,” and you will not be relegated to driving trash trucks because you gained weight or aren’t in a leadership position at work. Perfectionists live for the approval of others, not themselves, and the saddest part is that it’s not even necessary for living a great life. Stop it!