January 24, 2020

SMITH | The Price of Perfectionism

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As Cornell students we have a distinct sense of being groomed for our Perfect Lives. Raised to get perfect scores on standardized tests. Told even our extracurriculars, activities  typically meant to allow us to unwind and explore interests that are not scaled or critiqued like assignments, will come under scrutiny for their ability to improve or say something about us to others. Society has been grooming us since birth to be part of the perfect future workforce and gave us the technology to be constantly working, be it building a personal brand or receiving an email at midnight about class the next day.

This push for hyper-optimization makes even leisure time an opportunity for greater productivity. We craft “morning routines” to perfect our skin and “night routines” that ensure perfect sleep — though your slumber  might be marred by the knowledge that you could have worked on some personal project instead of going on a YouTube deep dive. Time not spent working towards some goal (academics, future careers, improving health, etc.) is frowned upon as “procrastination,” despite being the inevitable symptom of an overstimulated world. Overextension is the norm.

The irony of seeking perfection is that it emphasizes imperfection. It positions setbacks as failures instead of learning opportunities, and says that more work is always needed. Low-reward tasks such as folding laundry or cleaning your room seem somehow far harder than they should. That’s because perfectionism isn’t a behavior, it’s a way of thinking about and speaking to yourself. Perfectionism isn’t about working hard or setting high goals. It’s that critical inner voice telling you that anything less than or not in progress towards those goals isn’t good enough.

Cornell students are not strangers to perfectionism, and unfortunately they are also familiar with the unsettling list of clinical issues such as depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, early mortality and  suicide, associated with perfectionism.

Even as I was slowly driven towards  burnout, I was afraid of giving up my perfectionism. I thought it’s what made me excel, and that my performance in all areas of life would suffer. Yet a 2016 meta-analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism and burnout found little to no benefit from having very high personal standards. Also, the more “maladaptive” the perfectionism, the more likely the possibility of  burnout.

These results were hard to hear because my perfectionism had become deeply entrenched in my sense of self. When I did something less than perfectly, I didn’t just feel mild disappointment; I felt shame and acute failure. I didn’t wash my dishes: I was a slob. I submitted a “subpar” paper: I had failed even if it was perfectly acceptable and just not my best. These feelings were so uncomfortable that I found the perfect (pun intended) tactic to avoid these feelings: eradicate all imperfectness from your life,you’ll never fail and you’ll never feel disappointment or self-loathing. When crafting this genius plan, I forgot to factor something in: life isn’t perfect. The result was a vicious cycle of failing to be perfect, berating myself, and then resolving to be even more perfect the next  time. Aside from being the definition of insanity, I was setting myself up for a never-ending loop of destructive self-criticism, anxiety, and depressive symptoms that only made the self-criticism worse. It was the worst ride I’ve ever been on and I didn’t even want off for the longest time.

Of course, for chronic perfectionists such as myself, this change is easier said than done. I find the best way to begin to challenge perfectionistic tendencies is twofold:

  1. Do something imperfectly (fold half your clothes, wash half your dishes, spend half your day working.)
  2. Think about yourself kindly, do what makes you feel good (go for a walk, watch Netflix, play a game) without expectations and tell yourself that you are doing a good thing for yourself because you deserve it.

When talking to friends about perfectionism, one of them said something that stuck with me: “It’s impossible to prioritize your mental well-being while trying to achieve perfection.” I couldn’t agree more. At its core, perfectionism is fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear you’ll never do enough. Perfectionism gives you an illusion of control — but just  an illusion. Having fear drive your life choices wears down your confidence and self-image and can even leave you incapable of performing simple tasks. That’s no way to go about life. It’s exhausting, and you will lose track of the truly important things. So raise your standards. Stop trying to be perfect.

Emma Smith is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at esmith@cornellsun.com. Emmpathy runs every other Wednesday this semester.