An Ex-perfectionist

How I realized being a perfectionist was negatively affecting my life

Zara Iqbal, Opinion editor

Everything has to be perfect.”


These were often my words when I worked with others on group projects. In elementary and middle school, I was that kid the stereotypical artistic kid designated with the job of making everything look pretty and put together. Classmates I didn’t even know the names of wanted to become acquainted with me when we were assigned group projects.


I spent sleepless nights on projects, obsessing over every detail, from making sure everyone was using the same font size and color to shifting images on presentations by a fourth of an inch so the white space to image ratio was aesthetically pleasing. And when I’d roll into class with the finished poster or when I would hit submit on an online presentation, it would feel so right because everything was how it should be: perfect.


But at the same time, it felt so wrong.


Erasing and re-drawing the same block letter because it’s not aligned with the rest, reaching out to classmates to make sure everyone was underlining the title of their work instead of bolding it, repeating explanations more than enough times to make sure everyone understands what to do as one can imagine, it was physically and mentally exhausting.


I would send my groupmates dozens of messages to make sure they were using font size 12 and not 11, and it wasn’t until they’d tell me, “sorry, I didn’t see your text last night!” the day the project is due when I’d realize: I’m the only one who cares.


I was the only one who cared about these miniscule, perhaps irrelevant details, so was I the crazy one?


I’ve consistently been a victim of perfectionism; things not being the way they’re supposed to be is a recurring nightmare of mine. The problem was that I set standards too high for myself and attempted to reach them. At first, it was the little things, like group projects. But once I hit high school, the bar raised even higher, and I found myself struggling to reach my unrealistic standards of perfection.

Biting my lips in anxiety when I am forced to face criticism on my manner of working because my imperfections are pointed out. Becoming immediately frustrated when I’m not good at something the first time, such as trying a new art medium or a sport. Deciding to take on all tasks for any group assignment and becoming overwhelmed with the amount of work I pile up on myself. All of these thoughts were impacting the way I thought of myself, forcing me to hate the way I wasn’t able to meet my expectations forcing me to hate myself.


I became conscious of the fact that I used the concept of perfectionism as a coping mechanism for my insecurities. I’m not smart, but I was able to manipulate people into thinking that I was. I was complimented on being a perfectionist. I was seen as a diligent and organized worker, accepted as someone who did things “perfectly” on the outside even if I didn’t get the best grades.


And that was exactly the problem. Being a perfectionist makes you think that you’re not good enough. It’s a cycle: setting high standards that you fail to meet, and by failing to meet said standards, you’re “not good enough,” but continuing to set difficult standards to reach because it fuels your need of everything to be … perfect.


Perfectionism isn’t uncommon, so embedded into students in the first place because our environment so commonly consists of talks about academic achievement. It’s hard for people like me, people who don’t feel like they can keep up with others yet are also overly sensitive about being perfect in every little task.


It was only after years of self-reflection I came to the epiphany that perfectionism is quite literally ruining my life. Well, not really an epiphany. It’s something I’ve always known, but not addressed, because, ironically enough, pointing out that being a perfectionist is harmful goes against my perfectionist ideals. So … I simply tried to stop. I stopped focusing on the irrelevant details and becoming overly sensitive when everything didn’t go the way I wanted to.


When I catch myself itching to take control of a group assignment so everything will go my way, I stop myself. When I find myself hoarding clothes or photos in my camera roll that don’t actually matter, I let them go. When people don’t give me the amount of praise I expect for something that I’ve done, I don’t think about it too hard. I was able to break out of that cycle. And it wasn’t so bad, either.


Once I recognized that I didn’t need to dwell on trivial circumstances, I became more content. I noticed how free I truly became while not  beating myself up for every mistake I made. Because it may seem like perfectionism is about what you’re doing to make your life perfect, but it’s not. It concerns how you view yourself: as imperfect. But that’s exactly it nobody is perfect.  


Sure, I haven’t suddenly become someone filled with self-acceptance, but being a perfectionist prevented me from even getting close. Breaking out of the cycle of perfectionism is just the beginning of being able to accept who I am without being subject to the hate I cast upon myself.


And as for the self-acceptance, I’m slowly inching there.