#LifeofAStudent

November 1, 2011

Un-Perfecting Perfectionism

A Perfectionist at Heart

I have always been known to be a “perfectionist” and an “idealist” (meaning that I see things as they “should” be rather than as they are). Just ask my friends and family. Whether it is school, extracurricular activities, or personal relationships, and everything in between, I tend to have somewhat unrealistic expectations of what the outcome “should” be and therefore, over-think or over-analyze everything and wallow in disappointment at my unmet goals. Students and general readers — I am sure many of you can relate (at least to a certain extent).

The topic of this article was inspired by a considerably long (and ongoing) chain of Facebook messages that I have been having with a wise friend and a recent Sociology graduate from UBC. Like me, she also identifies herself as a perfectionist. Our continual discussion of our personal struggles in school, in the pursuit of perfectionism and our ambitions, has had a lasting impact on how I view and deal with my failures. With my friend’s permission, I will share parts of our dialogue that will hopefully offer some consolation and make you feel understood or less alone amidst the vicious cycle of perfectionism.

A Dialogue on Perfectionism

(from February 2011 – Present)

Me:

I feel so disappointed in myself for letting myself sleep more than I should have last night, and subsequently procrastinating on an assignment and arriving shamefully late for class. *sigh* I especially wanted to attend the discussion today because: 1) it’s the last day of class, 2) “friendship” is a topic very close to my heart, and 3) I really need to participate more in class and today would have been a good opportunity since it wasn’t based on the readings (which I hardly get done on time). *sigh again*

Friend:

Don’t beat yourself up too much about the lateness, sleeping in and procrastinating! We all do it but what is more important is that I can tell you’re trying to be better at it. Keep trying. Goodness knows how many other students are trying! University is crazy… Even I do the same things you mentioned, but probably amplified! I’m SO bad with things lately (and even before that — I remember back in the summer how I missed my last day of class and handed in my essay late due to procrastination. THAT was bad!) and I think I beat myself up about it more ’cause I’m in 4th year…

But I’m also just beginning to learn that, as students (especially at UBC), we tend to have high standards for ourselves because of the environment in which we work. It’s good to have high standards (because, after all, it is good to aspire to have a good work ethic) but those standards can become counterproductive when we hold ourselves too much to them. Often, it seems that students have other things going on in their lives. So, coupled with school stress, I KNOW it’s difficult to keep up with everything! So, I guess my point is that even though you and I may slip from time to time, we both just need to acknowledge that there are obstacles in our lives (no matter how “big” or “small”, every obstacle is significant) that are preventing us from keeping up and instead of beating ourselves up about the slips, we just need to be more forgiving of ourselves in light of the fact that we know we are capable of doing better. AND we are determined to do better. Ain’t nothin’ like a vision and some well-directed motivation to go with it… It’s all about being objective! We can do thissss! *fist pump*

Me:

Thanks for sharing your story of procrastination with me. Lol. Looks like we all fall through the crack sometimes, eh? I remember, one time in Mandarin class in my 1st year, I was having major difficulty memorizing these Chinese characters because they had so many strokes. I was studying and studying all morning, but memorizing the strokes seemed impossible. I began crying and skipped the dictation quiz later that day because I had completely given up. I felt hopeless and deeply disappointed in myself.

I keep on telling myself at the beginning of every term that I’ll not let myself fall behind on readings, assignments, and exam preparation, but sadly, I tend to let myself down. I know I could have done significantly better on my tasks had I been given more time. Nonetheless, your words of wisdom are so true. Being surrounded by numerous intelligent and intellectual students at UBC, it’s hard not to compare ourselves with them. I’ve always considered myself a perfectionist and an idealist, so when things don’t turn out as I’d expected or envisioned I become grossly disappointed, even depressed. But through experience, I’ve learned that I can’t control everything — I’ve got to give up some things (like more study time) for other priorities such as invaluable leadership experience. After all, grades are not everything; I don’t think students can say they’ve fully lived the campus experience until they’ve lived their lives outside of academia. So although we may be holding off on our academic goals sometimes because of our extracurricular involvement, I think pursing this enriching dimension of school life is worthwhile down the road. We just gotta “FIGHTTT the power of failure”!

Friend:

About working hard – I think you’re so capable of doing it! But, remember, don’t feel bad if things don’t pan out the way you want (e.g., getting a few low grades here and there). I’ve come to learn to make some “wiggle room” in my ambitions. You need to because ambitions aren’t totally everything in life – if they were, we wouldn’t be human. So the “wiggle room” allows you to be human and lets the experience of life itself take over! I learned that so much back in 4th year when I’d screw up on multiple occasions. And I learned it even more as soon as I graduated and when I came on campus a few times in the last two weeks. People stress too much over what ends up being nothing at the end of the day. It’s important to keep the “big picture” (whatever it is in a particular situation) in mind as opposed to sweating over the details. When you have the “big picture” in mind, the details become natural and effortless. So it’s like a total perspective switch. You know what I mean?

Me:

Your words of wisdom on giving myself that “wiggle” room really eased my heart — so much that I re-read your paragraph multiple times. I’m so glad I can always count on a wise Sociology graduate like you to offer valuable insight and advice.

It’s so hard for me to not sweat over the details because I’m such a detail-oriented person and perfectionist. But I’ve slowly learned through my experience at UBC that I can’t strive for perfection all the time — in fact, it can often be counterproductive. Like you said, I need to allow myself to be human and learn from my mistakes. That is always something I’ll need to remind myself every time I falter.

Friend:

Oh yes – the “wiggle room”. Hahahaha! I almost forgot about that… Aww, you’re giving me so much credit for being a mere Sociology grad! Thank you! Although I feel like everyone else, really! Except I’ve escaped UBC’s wrath (and still kinda recovering from its stronghold). As you continue along your own journey, I definitely think that you should continue to believe in yourself just like you’ve shown you’ve been doing. Continue to remind yourself of what the bottom line is when you feel like you’ve faltered. You are totally smart and CLEARLY have what it takes to self check and actually achieve your desired goals! Being detail-oriented is a blessing and a curse at the same time, missy. Trust me, I know. My mind is NOT the prettiest place to be in half the time – it’s full of STUFF. Details upon details upon details. Bugs me at night sometimes. But over the past 4 months, I’ve survived. I’ve learned to deal with my “detail issues”. Over the past few years, really — since I was, like, 12, to be honest. *sigh* It’s a battle, Elaine! It’s a battle! We both know it too well… Lol. But we’re getting through, and that’s the most important thing – we only go up!

Last Words

Through the poignant dialogue I have been having with my friend, I have learned that there are students out there, like me, who continuously strive for unattainable perfectionism. Fortunately, my friend’s words of wisdom and encouragement really helped lift me up during my low points and I am now trying to allow for some “wiggle room” (as my friend puts it) in my life.

Fellow readers/perfectionists: Let’s all try to make it a long-term goal to be forgiving of ourselves and learn from our mistakes, but simultaneously be determined to do better. Let’s allow ourselves to be human and let the experience of life itself take over. I’ve learned that I can’t control everything — I’ve got to give up some things (like more study time) to meet my other priorities. Let’s continue to believe in ourselves. When we do falter, let’s remind ourselves of what the bottom line is and look at the “big picture” instead of sweating over the details. And most importantly, we should realize that we won’t make these changes perfectly either!



About the Author

Recultured Team
Recultured Team
This is where you'll find the blog posts that the team has contributed to collectively! What team? Wildcats! -Nope, wrong team. Recultured!




  • BeautyofLife

    Thank you for your and your friends’ words of wisdom. It’s really easy to get caught up in the business of daily life, especially for those of us, who are high-achievers. But something that I constantly have to remind myself of, is to take time, and smell the flowers. They’re so gorgeous and lovely, and I smell, they have never even thought a thought.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment! =D It’s funny that you mentioned taking the time to smell flowers. I just started taking in the beauty and fragrant-smelling roses at the UBC Rose Garden this academic year. I guess I was so busy running off to class that I didn’t notice what was right in front of my eyes. Appreciating the little things in life is definitely important!

  • Thanks for the advice, ESPECIALLY during a stressful month! 

  • Anonymous

    You’re very welcome, fellow SOCI 382 / ReCultured blogging mate! =D Just remember that you’re not alone in the ongoing battle of achievement!

  • Jon

    wow that was surprisingly really deep.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Jon! I wanted to get deep and personal with my first article! =D

  • I think our yearning for a state of self-perfection can sometimes deter our personal growth, leading us to focus on all the wrong things and not stop to consider the bigger picture, as you mentioned. We let our little slip-ups consume us, impeding our future development and progress.

    I also very much agree with how, as important as it is to accept our faults and failures and not be too hard on ourselves, it’s still just as imperative to continue to stay driven and not lose that motivation.

    This was a much needed read. Great article, Elaine!

  • Elainelin4

    Awww, thanks for your great words of wisdom, Anneliese!  =) Not only do I strive to be a “perfect” student, but I also tend to overthink and overanalyze what I said or didn’t say to people, what I should have said, and how I should have said it, as though there’s a mental script and a checklist that I need to follow. Same goes for my actions. The whole process can be quite self-defeating. Like my friend, my mind is often full of stuff. >.<

    • I’m right there with you – ‘analysis paralysis’ gets me every time!

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