The Potential and Pitfalls of Perfectionism

Perfectionism. Well. Even now my brain is screaming ‘wait no what stop are you sure about this article?’And it happens every time. Especially at university, the drive to learn and to do well in chosen subjects which truly interest us encourages perfectionism.

While a positive term, perfectionism can also, and alarmingly often, go too far. In some situations, it even becomes crippling. I am sometimes so intent on producing the perfect essay, both stylistically and in content, that I fear my own dissatisfaction with the final product and cannot write.

Procrastination itself starts to stem from the irrational fear of making mistakes and having to edit my imperfect work. The essay is therefore delayed as much as possible, until the deadline arrives and the writing occurs in a single evening, all the more imperfect. And so many get caught up in the same vicious circle. Perfectionism stops me from starting, but it can as easily stop one from finishing. With endless editing and rewriting, assignments get dangerously closer to the deadline and run the risk of being unfinished on the day. The worst thing, however, is the resulting sense of failure. Not only for essays, but after interviews, or even for something as simple as dressing in the morning, self-disappointment, and in extreme cases self-loathing, take over. Stress and sleep deprivation start to rule our lives and it becomes impossible to focus without the ghost of that failed essay you gave in a week ago.

I am convinced that perfectionism is very much influenced by the different writing possibilities offered to us now. Some prefer handwriting, others takes all their notes on computers. In my experience, what I use for writing is one of the fundamental factors influencing my perfectionism. Having always handwritten everything, I feel much more comfortable with a pen in my hand than typing. The words flow easily on paper; my handwriting keeps us with my thoughts without having to worry about typos.

In front of a screen and a keyboard, my hands can’t keep up and the easy editing available just makes me rethink every word I write. It ruins my trust in myself. Maybe the word I just used had a better alternative. And all I have to do is press a button to make it disappear. It’s so easy. But it also means that I spend more time editing a perfectly adequate sentence to the point when its replacement has lost its clarity. For so many however, the other way around is true. Handwriting can completely break the rhythm of their writing. More importantly, the prospect of having to sloppily cross out entire unsatisfactory chunks of text makes them think all the more carefully about the sentence they are about to put down on paper. And so it goes on and on.

Perfectionists can’t fight that tendency within them. It becomes a matter of knowing one’s preferences and adapting to the task at hand. If we manage to curb every perfectionist’s tendency towards excess, perfectionism becomes extremely healthy. It’s a matter of knowing when to stop (which I still have no clue how to do). When to realise that stressing about something you did a week ago is not going to change it. It’s also a matter of trusting oneself.

Perfectionism can be a source of tremendous fulfilment, pushing us past our boundaries for results which make us proud. This pride stems from the recognition of our own potential, which we should acknowledge from the start. It is so easy to miss the hints of our own talent when we focus on our imperfections. Recognising our shortcomings is vital, but it needs to be balanced by the small amount of confidence necessary to drive us further. Perfectionism can be paralysing, but with the tiniest hint of trust, it becomes empowering.

Nobody is perfect, and the quest for perfection only leads to a great deal of frustration. I have learned to consider perfectionism as the endeavour to give my very best at the moment when it is needed. With time and practice, our best slowly gets better. And it’s different for everyone. What we do is no longer reach for Perfection, but find our own.

[Isabelle Ribe]

Image: The Sun

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