Perfectionism is slowly killing me inside. My psychologist refers to the phenomenon as ‘unrelenting standards’, which means that I set a standard for myself that can never actually be attained. These standards also do not apply to other people in my eyes. This covers all aspects of my life, from relationships to academic achievements. I could view perfectionism as a positive, other than the fact that I experience constant stress and anxiety because of it. I have quit so many things that I have started, from university courses, to online travel writing courses. I quit them because I felt like I wasn’t good enough and was going to fail. I preferred to quit early rather than discover just how incapable I may have been.
Anxiety surrounding perfectionism started early in my childhood. I remember at age ten pretending that I was sick one day so that I didn’t have to go to school. This was after I realised that I had completed a long division assignment incorrectly. I was so terrified of being perceived as stupid or incapable that I refused to go to school to receive my marks. I have always felt like it is expected of me to perform well and be a high achiever.
This perfectionism permeates every aspect of my life.
I expect myself to attain at least a Distinction (75%) in university assignments. For me, that is the equivalent to passing; it is my expected standard. I don’t celebrate getting high marks, I simply see it as expected of me. I once attained a mark of 66% on an essay and cried uncontrollably for an hour. I felt like an absolute failure. It is so important to me to be a high achiever and, in some way, prove to myself and others that I am intelligent and capable.
This academic perfectionism began in primary school, as I described earlier. I have always felt like my intelligence is my most important and most defining trait. I think that it stems from two places. Firstly, I grew up knowing that I was unattractive and socially anxious. This made me feel like intelligence was the only outwardly desirable trait that I had. Secondly, I was always praised as a child for being intelligent and gifted, which reinforced the message that it was important to be these things. I internalised this message and have fixated on it ever since.
I still feel like something of a failure today because I have to study part-time. Every time I try to study full-time like everyone else I know, I dissolve into a puddle of depression and anxiety by the end of the semester. I become non-functional from the amount of stress that my body is experiencing at any given time. Even though I know that I need to adjust the way that I attend university because of my mental illnesses, I still beat myself up over not being able to be perfect.
I have always felt like I need to be a perfect girlfriend, whatever that means. This is amplified by the intense fear of abandonment that I experience because of my borderline personality disorder. I worry that if I am not perfect, then no one will ever truly love me. For me, this means avoiding being clingy, jealous, and overly emotional. This is literally impossible to avoid, especially when I live with a personality disorder that makes me experience intense emotions most of the time. I also stress that if I am not sexually available when my partner is, they will become bored with me and find someone else. I rationally know that it is impossible to be perfect within a relationship, and would never expect it of a partner, but emotionally I feel panicky that I just don’t measure up.
Needing to be “successful”.
Since my early teens, I have felt the urgent drive to be successful. When I was younger, I was obsessed with the idea of being a published author at a young age. That never happened. I become fixated on young entrepreneurs and people who are succeeding at younger ages than I am. I know that I am only 22, but I see people years younger than me graduating university, buying houses, owning fancy cars, and getting adult jobs. It is confusing me for me because I don’t desire financial success, but I still feel like I am falling behind everyone else of my age. It is really important to me to make a positive difference in the world, and to create things through my writing that resonate strongly with other people .
The most confusing part about my perfectionism is that I give advice to others that I don’t follow myself. I tell all of my friends to take life at their own pace, try out new experiences, and not stress about the end goal of a degree or a rewarding career. However, when I think about my future, I panic. I feel like I am spiralling out of control, and I am petrified that I will live a mediocre, meaningless life. I wish that I could believe in my own advice.
Enjoying my youth.
My perfectionism is completely contradictory. On the one hand, I want to be a responsible adult who is moving towards a successful future. On the other hand, I am terrified of the idea that I am wasting my youth. I stress that I should be focusing more on socialising, having fun, and being carefree, while I still have the ability to do so. This is also influenced by my highly impulsive nature, which is a part of my borderline personality disorder. I deal with this fear by travelling as much as possible and focusing my energy on saving money for future travel. My rational brain knows that it wants to focus on the long-term plan and having a happy and fulfilling life. I don’t want to waste my time partying, but I can’t shut down the voice in my brain that says I am boring and wasting my prime years.
As I discussed in this post, my physical appearance is a source of great anxiety. I worry that if I don’t look perfect, then my boyfriend will lose interest in me and want to find someone else. I worry that other people will notice imperfections with my appearance and judge me harshly. Before I went through puberty, I considered myself to be extremely unattractive, and I never fully grew out of that mindset. Despite my appearance changing significantly, I still feel like the short, flat-chested, acne-ridden girl that I used to be. It is hard to shake away perceptions that you have had of yourself for so many years. Any imperfection in my appearance causes significant stress and anxiety. I try to remind myself that literally no one looks perfect, but it is difficult to listen to a voice of reason.
My various mental illnesses are a source of great personal shame. I hate that I have borderline personality disorder. I hate that I live with chronic depression and daily anxiety. It makes me feel weak and unlovable. I feel like a failure because I have had three years of therapy and I still don’t always implement my coping strategies. I hate that I relapse several times a year and seem to take one step back for every step forwards. This attitude of perfectionism towards my mental health is so harmful, because I emotionally punish myself for things that I have little control over. I would never perceive my mentally ill friends in this way, but I often see myself as a failure.
So what now?
I know that my perfectionism is deeply unhealthy and ruining my quality of life. I know that I am far too hard on myself and that no one could ever be as perfect as I try to force myself to be. My psychologist encourages that I practise radical self-acceptance. It involves treating my characteristics as true neutral. They are neither bad nor good, just the way that I am. I try to implement this self-acceptance in my everyday life, but it feels like an uphill battle. I will probably never fully let go of my perfectionism, but I am slowly working towards having more reasonable expectations for myself. I hope that one day I will get there.