To The Girl Who Thinks Perfectionism Equates To A Perfect Life

12/30/2016 08:24 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2017
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Dear Richa,

You are 14, and ambitious, and hopeful. You aspire to get your poetry published one day, to write for your school’s newspaper, or to perhaps even work for a literary magazine. All around you, people say that you are a perfectionist. You don’t entirely understand what it means, but it contains the word ‘perfection’ in it—something that you’ve been striving to attain for most of your life. Not excellence, but perfection. So you wield it as your shiny badge of honor, pleased that the world has started to appreciate your efforts to keep your life as immaculate as possible.

On the surface, you seem content. You have perfect grades, a color-coordinated desk and timetable, a neat appearance, and a level-headed demeanor. But at the same time, no one (and especially not yourself) can recognize the stress and inferiority you harbor every single day, that threaten to bubble to the surface and shatter the ‘perfect’ image you display to those around you.

I’m going to be plain here: you don’t always have to be the best in what you do. You don’t have to keep setting standards so excessively high that a part of you knows you’ll never be able to reach them. And it’s not because you can’t jump high enough, or because you haven’t worked to the best of your capacity. Sometimes, the stars you aspire to reach burn too bright—to the extent that they mangle your ability to see clearly and objectively.

Also, don’t avoid working on a new poem or essay merely because you’re not sure if it will turn out the way you want it to. Don’t delay working on a story because you think you’ll get stuck within the first five minutes—trying to find a word for an emotion, but failing, failing, failing to do so. You hate getting stuck, right? But that’s not what’s lowering your productivity; your aversion to getting stuck is.

And more than that, stop equating your self-worth and esteem to what you’ve accomplished… and to what you’ve not. You are more than your achievements, and definitely more than your failures and shortcomings. You are not the test you couldn’t get an ‘A’ on, or the competition you couldn’t win, or the piano piece you couldn’t play to ‘perfection’. You are a girl with blood flowing through your veins, with nerve connections being made in your head every second, with eyes that enjoy finding the difference between two greens that are almost the exact same hue. You use your ears to see, your eyes to smell, your nose to taste… Your legs relish in feeling the dull thud of your feet tapping the pavement, your fingers delight in caressing the smooth keys of a piano, your tongue adores the cool dribble of orange juice filling up your mouth.

Do not define yourself based on what you’ve done (and not done). Rather, define yourself based on who you are. Stop objectifying yourself. Tell that to the voice in your head that tells you to fear failure, that makes you spend inordinate amounts of time on something no one but you will care about. A picture that hasn’t been colored properly, that has speckles of white sprinkled across a blue and black backdrop. Rather than mistakes, could those white dots be considered stars against a night sky? No, it is not outrageously wrong to be fine with flaws like these. In fact, there is beauty in imperfection, and I hope you embrace this actuality eventually.

The world is extremely imperfect, something you noticed a long time ago. And yet, you still try to imbue perfection in every facet of your life: whether it’s related to your notebooks, your behavior, your hair, or your participation in class. Do you remember the times in middle school, when you’d actively avoid answering a question in class? It’s not because you were shy. It’s because you were terrified of answering wrongly—and having the rest of the class believe that you’re not the ‘perfect’ student you think you are.

That’s just an example. I can think of forty more, but I’m pretty sure you remember most of them with vivid clarity.

When you’re older, I want you to watch the 2010 film ‘Black Swan’, starring Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a vulnerable and naïve ballerina. The movie is a devastating example of perfectionism gone completely wrong—and shows its audience how the protagonist’s relentless pursuit of perfection in a highly competitive industry ultimately leads to her ruination. Nina is a character who, as said by Amanda Krauss, “[wants] something desperately, yet constantly [worries] that she is not good enough, always running through the rules in her head just to make sure she knows everything”.

So, well, I want to help you overcome these perfectionist traits—because in all honesty, I think that perfectionism is taking from you far more than it could ever give back. And that doesn’t mean I’m telling you to aim for mediocrity; rather, aim for excellence. (I acknowledge that perfectionism has helped you grow in several ways, but I still think you need to tone it down a bit.) If you’re shooting for the stars, don’t forget that the sun is a star. You don’t need to hang your name in the constellations you see in the night sky—not when a powerful star is bathing your world in golden light.

You’re only fourteen, and I want you to be happy and perpetually motivated (as opposed to perpetually dissatisfied). You can start by celebrating every minute achievement that comes your way—whether it involves writing a limerick you’re particularly proud of or tying your hair into a perfect braid. Furthermore, the world is not a giant dichotomy that you’re expected to make sense of; instead, try to look for colors between the usual stark shades of ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

You probably resent being advised by someone who’s older and wiser than you, right? Well, let me just give you one more piece of advice that I wished I had learnt earlier: stop comparing yourself to other people. No, comparing yourself to your peers is not motivating you to work harder; it is subtly encouraging you to give up, although you refuse to do so. To quote myself in one of my articles, “compare yourself to yourself, and to no one else”. Again, I’m not going to remind you of the countless times you’ve compared yourself to your classmates—whether related to sports, activities, or just confidence levels. Instead, just… track your progress based on the person you were yesterday. It will be strange at first, but you will get used to it.

Richa, perfectionism does not equate to a perfect life. You are trapped in a universe that revolves around chaos, and trying to tame that chaos is so fruitless that I’m already telling you to give up. Instead, try to embrace the uncertainties that you meet. Try to find beauty in your shortcomings, and potential in the flaws that surround you.

Chaos is beautiful. Perfection is not.


Your improved and far-from-perfect 17-year-old self