Pretending to be perfect will never make me perfect
“Where’s the other 2%?” my parents asked when I brought home a 98% on a test. They said it lovingly and jokingly, but the logic is engrained in me. I have spent most of my life striving for perfection, despite knowing full well that perfection is an impossible goal. I lose brain cells and sleep attempting to be exemplary and when I fall short, it feels like soul-sucking and sometimes bottomless failure. For a long time, I equated getting good grades with being a good person, and not getting in trouble with being somehow morally superior. I wanted people (my parents, teachers, friends, and boys) to like, value, and notice me, and felt that being “perfect” was a means to that end. On the surface, it often was. From what others could see, I was the gold-star-getting, award-winning, ever-praised, straight A’s kid. I was president or vice president of numerous clubs, softball team captain, and the student representative to the school board. I earned these designations and roles through effort and tremendously hard work, but also through Oscar-worthy acting. Because as important as being perfect was for myself, it was equally important for others to believe I was infallible. Despite outward appearances, I was insecure, riddled with anxiety, and completely unaware of who I was beyond the expectations of others.
In high school, I remember an assignment that required us to make posters showing the chronology of leadership in various countries. While we were only being graded on content, the presentation of the poster was equally important to me. Because I didn’t want it to be handwritten and because I didn’t like the way it looked to glue paper with typed writing onto poster board, I sat at my kitchen table and traced typed-out letters by hand. When I made a mistake, I started over. It took me over six hours to finish. It looked beautiful and is still one of the most impressive posters I have ever made. My teacher was impressed, my classmates were impressed, I got a perfect grade, and I felt proud of myself. But the time and effort I put into that small project was crazy and obsessive and should have been a warning sign to the people around me. Going above and beyond to be exemplary is not a bad thing unto itself, but my behavior was unnecessary, grounded in a need to impress others, and completely not normal.
On another occasion when I was about thirteen, a friend called me and asked if I wanted to come over. She lived a few miles away and neither of our parents were home to drive me, so I said I would ride my bike. About halfway through the ride, I realized I was lost and panicked. This was before cell phones or GPS, so I had two choices. I could return home, or I could keep trying to figure out where I was going. I took a third, completely unreasonable, option. I got on my hands and knees and rubbed dirt and gravel into my knees and elbows until the skin broke and I bled. I then went home, called my friend, and told her I had fallen off my bike and wouldn’t be able to make it. Before writing this, I have only told that story to one person. I was so unbelievably terrified of admitting I was lost—that I was not perfect—I chose physical pain and a meaningless lie. And in this situation, I didn’t even do anything wrong. I might have been teased for getting lost, but there was no reason to be afraid or ashamed. Yet, I did not see confessing or revealing weakness or struggle as a viable option. I pretended to have it all together, people mostly believed it, and I was rewarded with more suffocating gold stars. Cue the violins, right?
While it may seem petty or self-indulgent to complain about rewards and accomplishments, it is important for me to write this down. My pursuit of perfection was a crutch and a disguise, and by the time I reached college, it was a dangerous obsession and a serious compulsion. I did not know how to make mistakes, how to take risks, or how to just be “me.” I felt like a complete failure when my greatest effort yielded B’s instead of A’s, when I didn’t get every leadership position, and when every professor didn’t shower me with praise. When things went “wrong,” I locked myself away and cried uncontrollably, sometimes for hours at a time. I started lying and making things up to get recognition or to make people think I knew things by adding extraneous details or exaggerating claims for literally no reason. And most dangerously, despite complete consciousness of how messed up things were, I did not talk about it. I did not know how to let my guard down and ask for help. Furthermore, I could not risk tarnishing my reputation by admitting that I wasn’t perfect, that I was human. I was suffocating myself with pressure that was coming from nobody but me. But again, except to the people who knew me best, everything looked completely fine. I continued to excel, to win awards, to stand out, and to be successful. Looking back, I have no idea how. I was full of anxiety, prone to sudden and lasting bouts of depression, and would regularly skip meals to fit more into my days. I was surviving but my lifestyle and behavior patterns were neither constructive nor sustainable. If three good friends hadn’t noticed, called me out, and forced me to start seeing a therapist, I honestly do not know where I would be. I know I wouldn’t be where I am.
That first therapist helped me “diagnose” my perfectionism as the disease that it was and continues to be. Many therapists thereafter have helped me wrestle with the expectations I put on myself and the harmful mindsets that perpetuate feelings of failure, disappointment, and defeat when I am unable to reach those expectations. The desire to be the best has not gone away and I still sometimes feel like my identity is compromised when I make mistakes or fall short of perfection. However, in learning many of the lessons in this book, and in beginning to see that my value on this earth is not defined by grades, recognition, or praise from others, I have been able to break some of the more destructive habits that stem from my pursuit of perfection. There has been lots of unlearning and relearning and it is a constant struggle, but I continue to grow. I can now see my past behaviors as irrational, have learned how to stop myself when I feel an urge to exaggerate or inflate the truth to mask feelings of inadequacy, and have not hurt myself emotionally or physically for the sake of saving face for a very long time. I have learned, with a great deal of work, that no matter how hard I try, I will and cannot be perfect. I have also learned that discomfort, vulnerability, courage, and a willingness to embrace imperfections are requirements for living a fulfilling and functional life. I now know that my quirks and flaws are a part of the most authentic “me,” and that that “me” is a person worth being.
In seventh-grade, I had a science teacher who was one of the few adults who noticed the early warning signs. After I got a point off an assignment and cried, she asked me to come into her office during lunch. She handed me a coloring book and instructed me to color outside of the lines for the full lunch period. At the time, I cursed her very existence, and the lesson was lost on me until decades later. Nonetheless, I want to take this opportunity to thank her for noticing me when for years, nobody else did. I am successful today partly because I have learned how to color outside the lines and think outside the box, because I have learned that no matter how hard we try, we cannot be perfect.