Saying no to perfectionism

I’ve decided to stop pretending to try my best


Olivia Tilson is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

I have decided I’m done trying my best. I spent the entirety of my last two years of high school trying my best because I believed this was necessary for me to succeed and live the most fulfilling life. Flash forward to now, a year and a half into college, and I’ve still been trying my best. But is it worth it?

I was certain for years that it was important that I consistently work my hardest at the “right” activities and take the “right” classes. I felt the need to prove myself grade-wise — I started off somewhat lower academically than many of my closest friends. I spent the first year of high school believing soccer was the main part of my life. By junior year, I realized I didn’t even want to play soccer. I loved being part of a team, but soccer stopped being important to me.

After realizing my passion for soccer had — predictably —  fizzled, I turned my attention towards school  — something I’d always worked hard in but not as hard as I knew I could. Now I was dedicated to academics  — everything else in my life was demoted to second-tier status. 

At the time, I was in AP U.S. History and getting an A in that course was my top priority. I was taking other difficult courses, but this was by far the one I felt I needed to prove myself in the most. Even though my teacher and I weren’t that close —  I did do well in the course. 

Then by college, the aspect of trying my best manifested itself in major selection, extracurriculars and anything that could make my resume more appealing to potential employers. Most people I know have fully bought into “trying their best,” and I think in nearly all aspects of life that is a beneficial trait.

However, I’ve recently realized it is difficult for me to discern when I should be trying my best and when I should take a step back and either relax or enjoy an activity without stress. Some activities I should try my hardest in and others I should enjoy without concern for the end result.

My main argument comes from how a “good work ethic” has manifested itself in “rise-and-grind” culture. I am not happy when I’m working all day and constantly straining myself mentally, physically and emotionally, but many successful leaders advocate for just that. 

This “rise-and-grind” lifestyle is marketed as effective, efficient and often modern. Picture the woman who can do it all — be a parent, have a successful career and run a business on the side, all while working out five days a week. 

I’m tired of being encouraged to be the best person. It’s exhausting, unrealistic and there are just too many definitions of success floating around for me to meet them all. In fact, I was never fully dedicated to perfectionism, but I’ve always admired it and often attempted to portray myself as a perfectionist — or at least someone who works extremely hard.

I read an article assigned for one of my courses —Men, Women and U.S. Politics — this year which quoted Maria Pascucci, the founder of Campus Calm, an organization dedicated to helping college women understand they don’t need to be perfect. “In our society, being a perfectionist is a glorified and socially acceptable form of self-abuse,” Pascucci wrote. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the extent of this quote, but I do agree with the main message. Working hard — “grinding” — has become glorified within our society to the point where normal aspects of human life, like leisure and relaxation or anything classified as “down time,” comes with some guilt for most people. 

I still work hard in things I care about, but I’m no longer focused on building a resume that demonstrates what a well-rounded, well-adjusted person I am. This has helped relieve a lot of the stress I’ve had for the past few years. 

As a second year, I’m pretty close to the time when I need to declare a major, and I’m leaning towards politics or foreign affairs. Both of these interests fall into different programs which require applications, such as Batten or Global Development Studies. I realized I had five programs that could match well with my interests. I thought if I applied to them all, I’d maximize my chances at getting into one.

As I was working on the applications, I realized I wasn’t even sure if I was interested  in half of the programs I was applying to  — I just knew I had the prerequisites and was worried about missing out. I know there’s no harm in applying for them, but in this instance, I realized I was applying mostly because I liked the idea of being in an “exclusive” program. After harassing my friends and my mom, I realized that I was not even really choosing programs due to my interests or future goals but rather on prestige.

I decided not to apply to all five of the programs I was considering. Instead, I’ve kept the programs I know I would enjoy if I got in.

I still struggle with not trying to be perfect because I’m not great at re-adjusting my expectations. However, I was never great about trying to be perfect either — I felt guilty about not going to the gym, missing club meetings or procrastinating on studying. I still feel guilty about these things sometimes, but I’ve also begun to place less moral significance on aspects of my life that aren’t indicative of who I am. 

I used to consider myself a “bad” person when I flaked out on the gym or missed an extra credit opportunity — I imagined disappointing my parents and felt guilty about not appreciating all the opportunities I’d been given. I felt that, in order to appreciate my opportunities, I needed to work my absolute hardest and strive towards “perfect,” but this led to unrealistic standards and not necessarily a “brighter” future.

I’m not pushing for students to entirely flake out on their education or for students to appreciate their opportunities less. I just think I should stop feeling as though I’ve morally wronged someone when I don’t try my best. I also think it’s fair to take a lighter approach to certain aspects of my life. I don’t need to give every extracurricular 110 percent. It’s okay not to do the extra credit if I want to get more sleep.

Ultimately, I’m not proposing a groundbreaking shift in my approach to life. I wouldn’t have called myself a perfectionist a year ago, and I definitely would not consider myself one now, but I’ve decided to stop glorifying perfectionism. And this has made me a happier person.

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