My Struggle with Perfectionism



A few months ago, I realized: I AM a perfectionist.

The thought did NOT fill me with a sense of grandiose but left me relieved. I could finally identify myself as a human being who was full of mistakes but HATED herself for making any at all.

I traced back the lines that had led me to this realization. To be very honest with you, it was grad school that did it.

Before grad school, my ideas about life had always led me to think of myself as an idealist. I wanted to write incredible things but there was never enough time; on my good days I was fecund with ideas that filled pages of diaries and posts on this blog, but never lasted.

Grad school was like a hook that pulled me out of the rapids of a stream and brought me to a scratching halt near the stiller shores of real life. Suddenly, I had commitments, responsibilities, and more importantly, the beginnings of a vision.

As I struggled to make sense of mountains of work, all of which was compelling, I started to realize who I really was: I wanted to do EVERYTHING, and I wanted to start from step 1 and work my way to step infinity with zeal, compassion, commitment, sincerity and…perfection. And if that did not work (and it never did, of course), I would tie my hands back- I would give up or give way and produce something I was not happy with and then for eternity drag myself down with guilt. I would deny myself any form of leisure time- at first, because I did not have that sort of time to spare because being a perfectionist meant that I had to give every ounce of my energy to honing my work, and then later as a form of self-inflicted punishment for not doing a good enough job, or as a result of a health constraint that crept up amidst all this nerve-wracking back-and-forth.

It took me a semester and a half- but somewhere along the way, I began to see how hopeless life this way was likely to be. My father’s words started ringing in my head- as a self-declared perfectionist himself, he has often warned me about the perils of falling into the trap. For him, release probably comes through hours of effort which exponentially reduce the additional improvement to his work. For me, release often takes the form of hours spent with my fingernails between my teeth and my eyes on the screen of my laptop or phone, lapping up Youtube videos while anxiety gnashes at my brain cells because I am never good enough to bring anything up to the level that resides within those cells.

All that time I can be outside- walking around, meeting people, exercising, learning more and better with all those dying bits of my mind. Cooking. Blogging. Taking care of my (currently not-so-well) health.

Perfectionism is a deceptive term. I always associated it with neatly done homework, extraordinary creativity, immense knowledge. Today I know, that for me, it is only about stuffy rooms, insomnia, insurmountable lethargy, too many empty promises and dreams so vivid and colorful, they crush me underneath them.

The first step against any struggle, I like to believe, is acceptance. The second step is action. The third is iterative acceptance- because setbacks will happen. And then, hopefully, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The road upwards is a spiral and not a straight line. And through it all, I need cautious optimism.

So as summer turns into fall with August, I have to promise myself to put my health on the same footing as my obsessive, self-destructive forms of academic pursuit. Here’s to a healthier start- one that begins tonight!

PS: Fellow grad-schoolers, if you have suggestions, tips and tricks or want to share your own experiences, I would love to hear them.













5 thoughts on “My Struggle with Perfectionism

  1. I used to have similar issues. But the only way out of it is to put some dent into what you want to do. I still sometimes feel like what you feel on days when I would be stuck with my work (even though I put in hours of effort) but then every day is a fresh start, and causality is usually the source of all troubles. So I start from zero everyday, even sometimes during the day I train myself to think its a fresh start and give it my all. It is psychological, and so if you believe there is a solution or answer out there then you will eventually get it. On the other hand, health is very important, and so having a fixed schedule is important as well. If you get into a rhythm it helps you function well, and you always have a sense of accomplishment towards the end of the day. I am still trying to achieve that consistency with my schedule, but I believe that it will happen.
    Long story short: Have a fresh perspective always when you get stuck. Always believe that there is a solution. Work yourself into a schedule.

    1. I would have thought the same! But that’s the thing- this form of perfectionism is often about giving up because things aren’t good enough, conditions aren’t “perfect” enough- and hence it leads to lethargy. That is a part of the point I am trying to make here.

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