Nobody’s perfect, no matter how hard they try. Although I heard this message all my life from family, friends and pop singers, I never believed that I didn’t have to be perfect.
Finals week at CMU is next week. With deadlines posing, I’m tempted to do everything humanly possible to keep my 4.0. For the past two years, I’ve achieved straight A’s at the expense of my health and relationships.
I’ve wasted much of my life weighing my success in grades and other measures of achievement. The disappointing B’s, or once, the humiliating C, I received lowered my self-worth. Even when I succeeded, good was never good enough. At piano recitals, the audience’s applause could not drown out my deafening mental replay of my wrong notes.
While having high standards may save my GPA, aiming for perfection is not only unrealistic, it set me up for a life of anxiety and unhappiness over trivial tasks. Perfection has a way of seeping into many aspects of your life, if you let it. And I let it. I found it sabotaging my relationships, my daily life and even my health.
Two years ago I hurt my physical health when I began to obsess over my health. I ate super squeaky “clean” and worked out 7 days a week. Over time, I became more restrictive in foods I considered “clean enough” to eat, and I chose increasingly harder workouts. I lost weight, my menstruation cycle and friends. I gained joint pain, digestive issues and fatigue.
In my journey to recover from orthorexia, I came to understand that my disordered eating was a manifestation of my anxiety over success, or rather lack thereof.
Recently, I came to understand that I don’t have to be perfect. My student internship at Mesa County Health Department stretched my brain to the max, and I discovered the expanse of my ignorance almost immediately. The mistakes I made me feel like a failure in the moment, but I learned that I am bound to fail when I set a standard impossible for me to reach. I cannot be more than the best I can be. When I beat myself up because “I can do better”, I teach myself that I am a failure. When I interpret mistakes as learning opportunities, I grow.
I still struggle to forgive the unavoidable limits of my humanity. I still set impossibly high standards for myself and feel like a total flop when I cannot meet my goals. Even as I write this, my brain is rewriting everything in the attempt to make each word absolutely perfect.
Perfectionism is not a beast I can kill in one shot, it’s a place that I will never reach, and it keeps me climbing up an unending staircase. At the end of the staircase, back down all those scary steps, is freedom. Freedom to make mistakes, fall apart and have a bad day. Freedom to start a relationship even if I end up hurt. Freedom to apply for a job no college course can prepare me for. Freedom to live without defining myself by how well I do and what I cannot do.
Freedom to take a break!
A week before Thanksgiving, I made myself productive goals. I planned to work out every day, not eat pie and I finish my final papers and apply for a job. Thanksgiving Break, in essence, wouldn’t be a break. What actually happened? I didn’t go the gym once. I didn’t do any homework. And yes, I ate pie. And it was great. For the first time, I experienced what it’s like to take a break, a real break. And when I returned to CMU a week later, I felt refreshed and motivated to complete my semester. All the little worries floating around in my brain about having the time to finish my projects dissolved.
It’s not a crime to relax, after all.
I am slowly, steadily learning that one way or another, it’s okay if I’m not okay. Letters on paper do not change who I am. Failing does not make me a failure. Instead of focusing on how well I complete a task, I remember that caring less does not mean not caring. Not trying so hard does not mean not trying.
Whether you’re preparing for your final exams, writing a term paper or waiting for your employer’s review, don’t let a need to succeed own you this season– or ever, really. Have compassion for yourself. Learning to let it be won’t happen overnight. For me, leaving behind perfectionism has been a slow descent, and with every step, it gets easier to breathe.