I met Bel in our first year of high school. She was tall and slender, with thick hair that fell to her waist. She topped all of her classes with ease, and flittered through the different social groups of our year, somehow befriending everyone, from the goths to the ‘in crowd’.
After school, she took part in various extracurricular activities; she starred in the school play, sang a solo chorus in the choir, and was part of several sports teams. She got signed by a modelling agency.
At least, that was the case for the first four years of our high school career. In our senior year, everything changed. Bel got sick.
No longer was Bel the top of our year, she stopped flittering her way through the social groups. On the rare occasion she appeared at school, her eyes were sunken, sporting dark circles underneath. Her once bubbly nature was gone, replaced by dark cynicism.
Fast forward a couple years, Bel still struggles with her illness. Meanwhile, at university I meet Martin. Unlike Bel, Martin is not a social butterfly, nor is he the most popular in our year. What Martin has is an incredible mind.
High distinctions in every class. The founder and editor of a new university magazine. Bound for great things, surely.
But in our third year, Martin stopped coming to classes, he missed group assignment meetings. I later found out that Martin was hospitalised, diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Playing the ‘Imposter’
Many perfectionists, like Martin and Bel, try to portray a ‘together’ image and often fool many people. But, as Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University, says, this is actually a mask, underneath “they feel like imposters” and are emotionally drained.
You may be thinking that my friends remind you of someone you know, perhaps even yourself, and you aren’t alone. Many of us harbour traits of the ‘perfectionist’.
It could be that your home has to be ‘just right’ before anyone comes over. You may need your hair to sit exactly the way you want before you leave the house. Or perhaps you spend more time than you should on a work project.
Often these traits are ones we are secretly proud of, and that others admire in us. Perfectionists are often viewed as more successful, healthier, and, well, more ‘perfect’ than others.
Research has found, however, that this is far from the truth. There are links to various physical ailments, including migraines, chronic pain, and asthma. And, rather alarmingly, a 51-percent increased risk of death.
Likewise, there are links between perfectionism and mental health issues, such as crippling anxiety and depression. A paper published in Review of General Psychology argues it may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide.
Unfortunately, this dark side of perfectionism, perhaps particularly the suicide link, is often overlooked. As outlined in The Cut, this could partially be because perfectionists are apt at hiding their pain:
Admitting to suicidal thoughts or depression wouldn’t exactly fit in with the image they’re trying to project. Perfectionism might not only be driving suicidal impulses, it could also be simultaneously masking them.
In today’s society, it seems like the pressure to be perfect is greater than ever. The pressure to look good, yet stay natural; the pressure to have a successful career, yet maintain a work-life balance; the pressure to be healthy, yet not be a health freak. The list goes on. It is no wonder we are facing a mental health crisis, with tens of millions of people in the US alone suffering from a mental health condition each year.
So how can we let go of the need to be perfect?
Accept that ‘Perfect’ Does Not Exist
As poet and social media star, Prince Ea says, the correct definition of ‘perfect’ should be “a ten letter word describing something that does not exist.”
“Have you ever seen a perfect tree?” He asks in his latest video ‘The Prison of Perfection‘. Despite trees all leaning different ways, or have bark falling off, we see them all as beautiful, he says. “But when it comes to people, we don’t seem to see that we are all beautiful.”
Life is too short to live up to something that does not even exist
Aim Your Perfectionism Outside of Yourself
Gordon Flett advises that perfectionists use their traits in ways that help others, instead of focusing on being perfect in all areas of their lives. He says:
There is much to be said for feeling better about yourself by volunteering and making a difference in the lives of others.
So go out and find someone to help, the feeling inside you will be much more rewarding than any physical award you could receive.
Choose the ‘Right Door’ in Life
Prince Ea says there are two doors you can choose to walk through in life. Through the first door, you can aim to be perfect and admired. But through the second door, you choose to be the real you and be loved just the way you are. I know which one I prefer.
Perfectionists often wait until something’s just right before taking action. This results in leaving things too late and then having to rush to complete a task, or alternatively, working too slowly and missing deadlines. Either way, things don’t get done in a timely manner and you remain stuck in the procrastination trap. This could be why many perfectionists actually drop out of college/university.
Ending procrastination isn’t always easy, but remember that the more you do, the easier it becomes. Try this Japanese principle for getting out of the procrastination cycle in just one minute.
Accept Your ‘Flaws’
I was once utterly ashamed of my speech impediment, always trying to cover it up. But a few years ago, I stopped caring so much and I let it be heard. It was then that I realised it wasn’t as humiliating as I imagined. Some people didn’t notice it at all, and those who did often commented that it sounded exotic and even beautiful.
“Be the marble that doesn’t quite roll right…And don’t worry if people stop and stare.” Prince Ea says. He uses the Leaning Tower of Pisa as an example. “I mean if [it] was straight, nobody would care!”
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
How many inventions do you think were perfect the first time they were created? In fact, many popular inventions were made completely by mistake.
Take the inkjet printer for example. An engineer once was ironing his clothes when he placed the hot iron on his pen by accident. In what would have been a very messy incident, ink was ejected from the pen.
This mistake led to the creation of the inkjet printer.
Remember: Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
If everyone followed the popular phrase “go big or go home”, nothing would get done. Those who take small steps instead of giant leaps often get further. Sony’s first product cooked rice, now look at them!
Practice ‘Kintugi’ Living
Kitugi is an ancient Japanese tradition where if something breaks, they fill the cracks with valuable substances such as gold, silver, or platinum. These damaged goods then become unique and even more valuable. This art can inspire the way we see ourselves and our lives. Instead of looking at your cracks as something to be ashamed of, see them as something that makes you valuable and different from the rest.
Perhaps true perfection is acknowledging, as a society, that there is no perfection; to accept each other the way we are, to stop putting pressure on ourselves and others, and if we see someone struggling, to reach out and provide support.
Our uniqueness, our individuality, and our life experience molds us into fascinating beings. I hope we can embrace that. I pray we may all challenge ourselves to delve into the deepest resources of our hearts to cultivate an atmosphere of understanding, acceptance, tolerance, and compassion. We are all in this life together. – Linda Thompson