How Perfectionism Is Destroying Our Mental Health

How Perfectionism Is Destroying Our Mental Health

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It’s frustrating and disheartening when no one believes in you. I experienced something like this as a kid in the public education system. But when it comes to my family, they’ve always believed I was capable of doing great things. I wanted to prove them right by being perfect. But unfortunately, that led to a pretty high-stress life.

In hopes of living up to my family’s wildest dreams, I grew into a perfectionist and adopted a “second place is just the first loser” mentality at a young age. It was hard aiming for the best instead of just my best, and it followed me to university, where I was especially hard on myself.

Each semester in college, I had to make the Dean’s list or I felt I’d bullshitted my semester away. After a while, the Dean’s list wasn’t enough and I needed to make the Chancellor’s list. I felt the need to prove to everyone around me that I deserved to be there since many people told me I didn’t. And when I crossed the stage with honors, although not as high as I would have liked, I thought I’d finally reached the finish line.

But it was only the beginning.

Adulthood was waiting for me with open arms, ready and willing to demand a level of perfection and polish that I could never deliver. And the worst part? As a millennial, my degree, GPA, and four years of excellence meant nothing. I had to do it all from scratch.

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Perfection Hurts

I’m not the first, or the last, to fall into a spiral of shame trigger by perfectionism. As it turns out, it’s a pretty common phenomenon. According to a recent study, college students often experience depressive symptoms due to the demands of young adulthood combined with the expectations of university. The study’s authors also cite an earlier study that revealed a 30% higher prevalence of depressive symptoms in undergraduate students. While the exact cause of this is unknown, it seems to be related to the constant measuring and evaluation of students.

That research focused on the undergraduate population, but there are many signs of identical structures in our everyday life. Many of us work for companies that focus on metrics like “return on investment” and “productivity.” Our social media lives focus on shares, likes, and comments. We’re all trying our best to look like we are the best and live lives that are near perfect and it’s stressful. Perhaps, that’s the reason there is also a correlation between social media use and depression. We’re more connected that we’ve ever been. Yet we’ve never felt further apart.    

Moving Forward

I tried to attain perfection for awhile. I got a job right out of college working in insurance, dressed and spoke professionally, and gave my family something to be proud of. Until I realized I hated my job, couldn’t afford to dress the part all the time, and ran off and got married to my middle school crush. My imperfection felt like failure, but my post-grad life was killing me not so slowly. I had to leave.

Thankfully, I had a love for knowledge and a creative spirit that eventually enabled me to make dreams happen in my own lane. Otherwise, I would have lost my mind and sense of self a long time ago.

Leaving that perfectionist mindset wasn’t easy. It required introspection, correcting harmful thinking, and learning to rebel. It also led to a run-in with depression. Even now, when I look at how my life has panned out, I feel like I missed the bar. I’m a graduate who doesn’t use her degree, a young mother of one (with another on  the way), and a less-successful-than-I’d-like career. I feel like I’ve let everyone down. With that comes moments of debilitating sadness and feelings of failure. I’ve done “okay” things, but I’m not sure I accomplished the accolades my family deserved from me.

I know I’m not perfect. I’m insecure about nearly every aspect of where my life is headed. My hair is stuck to my head more days than not and I’m trying to learn how to love a child, another adult, and myself. It feels like the world is in chaos and I’m powerless to it all.

But I’ve realized that the only thing I know I can control is waking up each day, being authentic, and trying to cut myself some slack.

I don’t have time for trying to look perfect anymore. Showing our imperfections is what we need to change the world.