23 | Perfectionism & High-Achievers
But perfection is a false god. It never delivers on its promise that we will be fulfilled once we have reached the utmost level of performance. What begins as a measured pursuit of excellence turns into an insatiable thirst for perfection. Your mind becomes trapped in self-destructive ruminative loops that perpetuate a misguided belief that you are a failure if you fall short of perfection. The irony is that a behavioral affinity that was supposed to protect you from shame actually breeds it, and an untamed predisposition for perfection will instead foster self-blame and judgment. All of these cognitive patterns have the effect of corroding the psyche.
(to my best friend)
My first game console was a Sega Genesis. When we we purchased it, I was going through a hockey phase, so I purchased NHL ’97. One of the cool features in this game was that you could create your own players, and you could play entire seasons with him on a team of your choice. I created M. Nazir, who wore number 17 and played left wing for the Detroit Red Wings. His scoring prowess was unmatched, breaking all of the single-season scoring & assist records on the way to leading his team to Stanley Cup glory. I would play for hours on end until my statistics were perfect. Whenever my team gave up a goal or if my team was on the way to a loss, I would hit the restart button and replay the game. I would not tolerate blemishes on my record.
I shared this experience with dozens of my friends, and probably thousands of boys & girls across the world who played similar video games. It sounds innocuous on the surface, but when I trace back to the days of my childhood, I realize that there’s a more disconcerting subtext there. It indicated an innate discomfort with blemishes and promoted the impractical pursuit of perfection. In this case, the blemishes were imaginary and restarting the game every time was inconsequential, but in the real world, there is no restart button. Expecting perfection out of every stage in life is not only unreasonable, it is a one-way ticket to self-destruction.
I wanted to focus on this because suicide rates are disproportionately elevated in places of high achievement. This trend emerges in adolescence and remains a constant during college, emerging adulthood, and professional careers. Silicon Valley is one of the most prosperous places in the world, and families that have the fortune of living in the Bay Area have access to some of the best high schools in the country. Yet two of its preeminent schools, Palo Alto High and Gunn High, experience suicide rates that are 4–5 times the national average. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has had one of the highest suicide rates in the country for several years, reporting 12.6 suicides per 100,000 undergraduates, with neighboring Harvard at 11.8 suicides per 100,000 undergraduates (to put that into perspective, the national average for college campuses is roughly between 6.5 and 7.5 suicides per 100,000 students). There were six suicides during my senior year at Cornell University — the juxtaposition of these horrific events with the natural beauty of its gorges made it all the more unsettling. The suicide epidemic does not stop once it has exited the high pressure halls of academia. Physicians experience the highest suicide rate of any profession in America, with estimates of 300–400 physicians dying by suicide per year, roughly one per day. The correlation between suicide and these areas of high achievement is impossible to ignore. While there are many forces attributable to these grim statistics, I will be examining how an inordinate fixation on perfection has contributed to this crisis.
Perfectionism is a flaw in vulnerability. We chase after perfection because we hold onto a belief that when we show ourselves in our most perfect form, we will be accepted. We use it as a defense mechanism, assuming that if we submit works that have been whittled down to every last detail, it will absolve us from criticism, ridicule, and disrespect. We fear the prospect of exposing our flaws and inadequacies, so we use perfectionism as a shield against shame. We conflate the pursuit of perfection with self-improvement — while the latter pertains to seeking a sense of personal fulfillment, pursuing perfection is almost always related to appeasing an external party, like your family, friends, or community. We rely on perfection to compensate for our deficiencies in self-confidence — perfectionism fills the void when we believe that our authentic self is not enough.
But perfection is a false god. It never delivers on its promise that we will be fulfilled once we have reached the utmost level of performance. What begins as a measured pursuit of excellence turns into an insatiable thirst for perfection. Your mind becomes trapped in self-destructive ruminative loops that perpetuate a misguided belief that you are a failure if you fall short of perfection. The irony is that a behavioral affinity that was supposed to protect you from shame actually breeds it, and an untamed predisposition for perfection will instead foster self-blame and judgment. All of these cognitive patterns have the effect of corroding the psyche. The body of mental health research support this idea — many studies have validated the causal link between perfectionism and depressive symptoms, including this longitudinal study that investigated the interpersonal relationships in a sample of undergraduate students.
For someone that is immersed in high-achievement environments such as ivory tower institutions or world-renowned hospitals, it is very difficult to abandon this crutch. Perfection is the justification for why they have made it in the first place — if upholding oneself to the highest standard of excellence has gotten them this far, why not go further? There is no margin for error in the never-ending staircase to the top — that is ingrained into their minds from an early age. But all of this comes at the hidden cost of a deteriorated mental state, a cost that is too high when compared to the illusory & fleeting feeling of achievement. Rarely does any kind of success outweigh the debilitating effects of a crippled mind.
Breaking the cycle is no easy feat, but when you have acknowledged the paralyzing grip of perfectionism in your life, you can apply the same mental tools discussed in this series to overcome it. These kinds of shifts in mindset need to be coached from an early age (ideally the early teenage years, when most adolescents first encounter these hyper-competitive environments), but it doesn’t mean that an adult can’t mend their ways. It begins with a healthy acceptance of our shortcomings and failures. Imperfections are self-defining, not self-effacing — flaws & falls need to embraced instead of shunned. This happens through the practice of self-compassion and mindfulness: self-compassion teaches us to be warm to ourselves when we stumble, and mindfulness teaches us to separate ourselves from our negative emotions. We must make the mental shift from celebrating success to celebrating diligence. There is a difference between saying “I am proud of my perfect test score” and “I am proud of the work I put into getting my perfect test score” — one is outcome-oriented, the other is effort-oriented. This is the central tenet of the growth mindset: the belief that skills can be developed through dedication and hard work, something that is easy to forget when we are so fixated on the end result. When our inner dialogue tells us that our unblemished selves are the only representations worth showcasing to the world, we are demonstrating cognitive distortions of all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading, should statements, and labeling / mislabeling. It is critical to stay vigilant of of these twisted thoughts and reshape these internalized scripts every time we confront them. All of these skills can slowly help you cast off the misplaced assumption that perfection is a worthy goal.
Fixing attitudes around high achievement is only one aspect of a wider problem that is systemic. Access to mental health services might be limited in competitive public high schools, and even then, leveraging them could be culturally discouraged. Academic environments that favor standardized scores as the primary measure of aptitude overlook more qualitative or character-based assessments of students. Many employers put a disproportionate emphasis on grade-point averages when they filter for potential hires. You need to jump through a number of hurdles to pursue medicine professionally — with so many gating mechanisms in place, you convince yourself that you can’t afford to stumble to reach your final destination. And when your line of work frowns upon emotional transparency, you refuse to show any signs of weakness because you know that it could compromise your professional standing. This is just a sample of the considerations that need to be taken into account when tackling the mental health epidemic in areas of high achievement. But high achievement does not have to come with a Faustian bargain of diminished mental stability. With a healthier attitude towards failures and our flaws, we can set the foundation for a better environment for all.
The Semicolon Series is motivated by my NYC Marathon campaign to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Please consider donating here.