I want you to imagine a time when you felt like you weren’t good enough.
Most people, at one point or another, have experienced this – maybe you were rejected by that job you applied for, or ignored by the person you like.
Now, I want you to imagine going through every little detail in your day and feeling like you weren’t good enough. This is perfectionism. This means overthinking conversations before and after you have them. It means seeing a whole diet as a failure just because you had one bite of junk food. It makes you question whether your boyfriend’s compliment was actually genuine. I mean, how could anyone ever think you look good in those jeans?
Yet, nobody will ever tell you that you have a problem. Nobody will ever say, “Hey, can you stop trying so hard? Can you stop studying so much?”
Trying to be perfect is a glorified illusion. Sure, perfectionism helped me excel at pretty much anything I put my mind to. It helped me to get straight A’s through school. It helped me to manage to “be skinny” while ignoring my health and my hunger. It helped me win community service awards, athletic competitions, and scholarship money. But perfectionism was also there to tell me that each of these accomplishments were not sufficient. I needed to try harder, do more, be better.
Whenever I had achieved something, perfection was there to remind me to set my sights higher. This problem told me that just straight A’s wasn’t enough, so I took extra classes and joined more clubs. Perfectionism told me that my body was not thin enough, so I’d eat less and run more. It told me that just going to university wasn’t good enough, so I had to finish university at 19 years old and immediately apply for graduate school. And even still, graduating at 19 wasn’t enough, because I would never be the doctor or engineer or Olympic swimmer that my dad wanted me to be.
This feeling of never being good enough can stem from a number of factors. In the past, it was because of how I was raised. As a 7 year old, I was grounded for not swimming fast enough in a competition. As a 9 year old, I was forced to run laps around the block to “stay in shape,” even though I had a concussion and a skull fracture. As a 12 year old, I wasn’t allowed to visit the hospital for a broken toe until after school. Perfect attendance in middle school is, in fact, more important than broken bones. When I turned 13, my father began to tell me that I needed to lose weight. Not only did he want me to be an Olympic swimmer, but a super sexy one!
I learned from a young age that I could only receive my dad’s “love” and approval if I was exactly the person he wanted me to be – which I quickly realized, I wasn’t. Nonetheless, it took me much too long to learn that this was not actually my fault. Somewhere in all of this mess, I do still believe that my parents just wanted what was best for me.
At some point though, these rigid expectations stopped being my parents demands, and turned into the voice inside my head, incessantly reminding me that I will never be good enough.
I am learning that I cannot continue to sustain this way of life. I am learning to believe that I actually am enough. There really is nothing beneficial to dragging yourself from class to class after being in the hospital all night – just to say you had perfect attendance. There is nothing wrong with taking five or six years to graduate university. And trust me, I feel no better for doing it in two. In fact, I regret having rushed through the best time of my life. If anything, I’ve learned that people don’t actually see my accomplishments as impressive. They just look down on me for being so young.
So how do you move past this? How can you finally accept that you actually are good enough?
I have been told that you have to look at yourself in the mirror and stop seeing yourself as parts. You must instead see yourself as a whole, made up of little bits and pieces that are not inherently good or evil (pretty or ugly, really). You are not good, nor bad. You are not perfect and you are not a failure. You are too complex to be labeled this quickly. This is okay, because life is not lived in black and white.
The only way to “get better” from trying to be perfect is to let go – imperfectly. Isn’t it the funniest thing, that, the only way out of perfectionism is to imperfectly stumble and fight your way out?
I have been told to take my “failures” as learning opportunities. Being a doctor didn’t work out. Am I sad? At one point, yes, I was upset I wasn’t smart enough. But, thank god I’m not a doctor. I’d be miserable.
You must learn to put your health before work. This means skipping class because you are sick. This means going to sleep at a reasonable hour instead of studying all night.
Most of all, you must make time for your relationships every day. You must learn to treasure those who do love you and who do care about you, and stop looking for love in family members who are incapable of giving it. You must care for these people like you want them to care for you. And please, never expect for them to be perfect. They will make mistakes, but it doesn’t mean they love you any less.
I am far from perfect and I am working each and every day to get better, by being less perfect. I am learning to stand up for myself, to show myself love and compassion, and to spend a little more time cherishing my friends and a little less time ignoring my health. I am also hoping, perhaps, that in writing this, there is at least one person out there who now feels just a little bit less alone.