THE DUALITY OF PERFECTIONISM:
MY DOWNFALL AND MY DRIVING FORCE
Picture this: I am sitting down to write this very piece. My screen is empty, but for the blinking cursor that mocks me with each flicker. I quickly diagnose myself with writer’s block, the psychological inhibition that currently manifests itself as a major obstacle to the completion of this piece. My brain swirls with a myriad of profound thoughts; yet, my fingers seem unable to establish text on the page. I just can’t seem to find the consummate string of words that will fulfill the task of messenger, delivering my thoughts to their eventual audience. In the pursuit of perfection, I have not only fallen short, but also failed cataclysmically – unable to put even one singular word to paper. While for some, this may seem like a lapse of ingenuity or an uninspired mind, for me, this is a recrudescence that plagues every aspect of my day to day life. This scenario represents just one example of my struggle with perfectionism.
Although my writing process is a frequent victim of my unrelenting desire for flawless outcomes and performances, perfectionism has presented itself in all facets of my life for as long as I can remember. I view my perfectionism as a double-edged sword; while I believe it is the single-most important motivating factor for my many achievements, I also see it as a large source of consternation and a significant barrier to my wellbeing and future success.
I view my perfectionism as a double-edged sword; while I believe it is the single-most important motivating factor for my many achievements, I also see it as a large source of consternation and a significant barrier to my wellbeing and future success.
Starting at a young age, I set extremely lofty goals for myself. These goals coupled with my inexorable determination to reach them catapulted me to achievements that surpassed many of my peers. In school, I received praise from teachers, classmates, and others about my “exceptional work ethic” or “high personal expectations.” I found school to be very manageable, and I was consistently able to meet the high standards I had set for my own performance. Thus, the looming expectations did not take a huge toll on my wellbeing. When I began playing recreational sports, it was a very similar case: I wanted to be the best I could be. In addition to team practices, I would train on my own time, passing a soccer ball with my dad in the park next to our house, or shooting hoops into the rusty basket perched at the curve of our cul-de-sac. This extra effort coupled with my innate height and strength allowed me to naturally excel.
As I got older, my goals germinated into expectations, and they only grew increasingly stringent as time passed. After what I considered to be a fairly comfortable elementary and middle schooling experience, I was humbled by the harsh reality of high school. My San Francisco high school’s microcosm brimmed with “sink or swim” mentalities, 14-year-olds with resumes longer than a CVS receipt, and countless outcome-oriented expectations that were almost as outrageous and puerile as they were admirable. It was at this point that my positive attributes of goal setting and high expectations turned poisonous and destructive. I began not only wanting, but expecting the best from myself and accepting nothing less.
I began not only wanting, but expecting the best from myself and accepting nothing less.
These unrealistic demands were accompanied by a disposition to evaluate any failure to achieve them as a sign of personal futility and unworthiness. Whether it was feeling that an A was no longer sufficient unless it had a 100% attached to it, or feeling like my extracurricular list was inadequate despite tacking on any activity my schedule would permit. Days became insufferably exhausting as I would fill every minute with attempts at productivity because free time felt like a waste to me. If I achieved what I deemed to be “perfection,” I was not proud, but merely satisfied. Anything else was simply letting myself down. This is the first instance I can remember where my perfectionism became a serious detriment to my wellbeing, although it did not have too large of an impact on my performance as I continued to do extremely well in school.
College also marked a notable shift in my perception of my perfectionist tendencies, particularly as it applied to athletics. Because I came from a small town and a smaller high school, I was used to being the big fish in the little pond. This was not the case when I arrived at USC. Before coming to college, I was required to take a hiatus from athletics lasting nearly 2 years, an aggregate of a pretty extreme ACL/meniscus injury and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I arrived at USC and joined the beach volleyball team, I expected to be able to rise to the same level I had in the past, but I was sorely mistaken. I was not where I needed to be in terms of my fitness, skill, or overall readiness. Rather than reacting rationally and accepting the challenges of growth and improvement, I became frustrated with myself and my perceived deficiencies.
Throughout my freshman year, exacerbated by the fact that school was online, beach volleyball practice was my only connection to the life I knew. I noticed that I began equating my performance at practice with my dignity and self worth.
I noticed that I began equating my performance at practice with my dignity and self worth.
Although many athletes experience disappointment over less-than-desired performances, I found myself feeling more serious emotions such as shame, viewing myself as an ignominious degenerate. I would pick apart my performance after practice, never satisfied with what I recalled. Rather than focusing on improving, I was absorbed and obsessed with trying to make everything perfect, scared to make technical changes that would propel me in a positive direction. Even though I could take a step back and understand that perfection in a sport such as beach volleyball is unattainable, I was unable and unwilling to accept this fact and apply the mindset to my own outlook. My game suffered tremendously.
In addition to my skill-based struggles, I went to extremes trying to achieve what I thought would catapult me back to my elite form. I developed severely disordered eating habits, as well as exercise addiction. I was working out twice a day in addition to practices and sports-specific strength and conditioning, while eating far too little in order to achieve what I had conceptualized as the “ideal beach volleyball body type.” As I was still expecting straight A’s in school, thus committing the same time to my studies as before, the extra exercising and obsessing over food detracted from the time I would have otherwise spent with friends or practicing self-care. This striving for perfection became an obsession that sucked the joy out of a sport I love, and meeting the unrealistic goals I consistently set for myself became the singular factor to sustain my happiness and sense of identity.
This striving for perfection became an obsession that sucked the joy out of a sport I love, and meeting the unrealistic goals I consistently set for myself became the singular factor to sustain my happiness and sense of identity.
This time, the perfectionism had not only impacted my wellbeing but had also managed to pervade my performance as well.
Although perfectionism is a mindset that I am trying to mitigate, it is impossible to neglect its multidimensionality as a characteristic, taking both positive and negative forms. A lot of recent scientific studies bolster this claim. Perfectionism, particularly in elite athletes, has been the subject of an increasingly large number of studies. Many of the more recent conceptualizations suggest that most perfectionist tendencies fall into one of two categories: perfectionistic concerns, and perfectionistic strivings. Characteristics in the bucket of perfectionistic concerns are associated with the more deleterious facets of perfectionism such as increased perceived pressure, and excessive concern over mistakes. Conversely, characteristics deemed conducive to performance such as high personal standards and good organization are placed into the perfectionistic strivings category. This duality is key to understanding the implications of perfectionism, and something I have experienced firsthand.
The line between positive and negative perfectionism is muddled. While it is reasonable and constructive to want to do well and set ambitious goals, issues arise when these targets turn into unattainable expectations. After spending considerable amounts of time evaluating my own mindset, I can apply the adage that “too much of anything is never good” to my past in order to improve my future.I don’t view the long period I was held captive by perfectionism as a waste, or an entirely negative experience.
I don’t view the long period I was held captive by perfectionism as a waste, or an entirely negative experience.
My perfectionism has helped bolster me to achievements I may have never otherwise reached, such as exciting internships or winning an NCAA national championship. However, I realize now that I can still achieve those things without being bogged down by the pressure I put on myself to meet impossible objectives.
As I continue to battle the negative aspects of perfectionism, I look forward to taking on the challenges of life with a sense of gratitude and enjoyment. Even while undertaking the creative journey of writing this piece, I was met with several obstacles. I spent seemingly interminable periods of time perusing through the vast vernacular catalog in my mind to pinpoint the perfect words and things to say. Although it was agonizing at times, it allowed me to articulate my experience and gain a new outlook on my struggles and future as a perfectionist.
As my perspective shifts, obstacles reveal themselves as growth opportunities to be embraced rather than things that must be conquered or checked off; as this truth emerges, I see a world in which I can truly live.
Photo courtesy of Caitlin Cummings
Photo courtesy of Caitlin Cummings
Photo courtesy of Caitlin Cummings