The Bane of Perfectionism

Perfectionism becomes a badge of honor with you playing the part of the suffering hero.

— David D. Burns

Perfectionism is difficult to live with. I say this because I’m a hyper-attentive perfectionist myself. What had started off as a healthy desire to succeed subtly morphed into an obsessive drive to never experience failure. What had started off as an exciting list of goals grew into a daunting, unsettling catalogue of achievements I had to accomplish before my next birthday. I had to keep moving — breaks didn’t exist in my vocabulary. If I achieved something (won a competition, got published in a literary journal, etc.), I would allow myself a few minutes of satisfaction. And before I knew it, my mind had moved onto something else to work on, something else to achieve within a given time frame. In a nutshell, I was perpetually dissatisfied. Honestly, I lived for those few minutes of satisfaction and pride, in full knowledge that they were painfully fleeting. Everything, just everything, had to be perfect — my grades, my homework, my study table. I’d spend ridiculous amounts of time on a task that should’ve only taken a few hours — because I didn’t want there to be any room for criticism.

And then what happened? My health and social life spiralled downwards. I was trapped in a vicious cycle… or maybe a vicious vortex — since I kept going down. I began isolating myself from people, I paid less and less attention to my appearance. A majority of my communications with people were part of my responsibilities as a student (for example, as editor of the school newspaper). I was the level-headed, responsible person — who disliked gossiping because it was a waste of time. Deep down, I envied my peers who didn’t set such unrealistically high goals for themselves. I envied them for laughing, for sitting in a circle and chatting — because I desired that kind of break so, so much. When my friends thought about something, I worried about it; when they worried about it, I’d panic about it. There was no flexibility in my schedule — I would start fidgeting if a friend asked me to wait for her after lunch. My foot would start tapping, my heart would beat a little faster. I thought I was happy being a perfectionist, but sometimes… I just wanted to scream and be heard.

Perfectionism is a bane. And at one point, it becomes frightening — because there’s no end! It’s like being trapped in a labyrinth of fear of failure — knowing that the impossible lies at the centre. You stop noticing the beautiful aspects of life — like a blue sky after days of rain, the lemon that just sprouted in your garden, your hair after it’s been freshly washed. You don’t revel in the sound of laughter after you’ve made a joke, you don’t savour each bite of that dessert — because you’ve got so much on your unending schedule to get to. There is no now — it’s always five years from now. You don’t work to be happy — you work to be successful. And that’s where the pain starts.

One day, my mother told me — our main goal in life is to be happy. Because at one point, successes don’t matter any more. I was shocked when I heard that; it was like someone told me that my life’s philosophy was a massive joke. It took me a while to take it to heart and start living by it in small ways. I’d go down and play basketball with a few friends; every time we laughed until we cried, I started treasuring these social relationships more. I even asked my little sister if she’d like to go for a movie with me; and I definitely remember that night better than an evening that would have otherwise been spent studying or working. Family dinners didn’t exist to eat food so that I’d have enough energy to work — they existed to cement relationships with the people I loved most. Failures don’t exist to get us down and remind us that we’re flawed as individuals; they exist so that we can value and celebrate our successes even more. The past doesn’t exist so that we can dwell and sulk over previous misfortunes; it exists to guide us in the present, and eventually into the future.

It took me a long time to realise this — and to ultimately accept that my way of living was inherently flawed. Now, as I reminisce about my happiest moments in the past year, they seem to have a common thread — such as during the 2015 Christmas party at school, when I went on a vacation with my family, when I went to an incredible restaurant with my friends. During all these times, I was around people I genuinely care about — I wasn’t working, wasn’t worrying about work, even felt a sense of beauty.

Perfectionism isn’t glamorous. It’s an obstacle to happiness — which I now know is the reason we all live. It’s exceedingly difficult for the perfectionist to let go and start living a healthier, happier lifestyle; but once it’s achieved, you start realising how extremely unhappy you were before. Life is beautiful, and we just have to appreciate that. So next time, don’t look at the one mark you lost; rather, look at the nine marks you gained. Don’t look at the time your finger slipped when playing the piano; look at the time your fingers danced in a show of harmony. To conclude with a quote of Hannah Arendt, “in order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism”.

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