Why Can't I Be Perfect?

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Have you ever struggled with wanting to be perfect?

It might not be that you want everything in your whole life to be exactly perfect. There might just be that one thing that you can’t stop thinking about. Maybe it’s your studies. You push yourself to near breaking point and work late into the night because you’re afraid of getting low grades. Maybe it’s sports. Maybe you spend so many hours practicing that you feel exhausted, and every loss of a game makes you feel terrible. Maybe it’s the way you look that makes you get up early every day to get ready, starting from scratch if your outfit isn’t quite right or your make-up doesn’t look exactly the way you want it to.

Perfectionism isn’t just the desire to have things a certain way. It’s a toxic mindset that can control your life, invade your thoughts, and drain you of energy. It can be linked to depression and eating disorders, although it doesn’t always result in those things.

How does perfectionism relate to young people?

There are a lot of ways perfectionism can impact young people. It’s easy to worry about our online image, wanting our social media posts to be just right and our photos to look a certain way. This is something that impacts people of all ages, and it’s easy to become obsessed with this.

There’s also a lot of academic pressure to deal with. Exams and coursework can be really hard work, and many young people want to do as well as possible. Students may put themselves under a lot of stress in order to get the right grades to go to the college or university of their choice, or to get into an apprenticeship – it can feel like there is a lot at stake here.

Another issue is body image – we’ve talked about this before on this blog, but this is an issue that we can easily worry about. It sounds trivial, but the need to look a certain way can be very draining and stressful to live with – especially if we hold ourselves to certain standards set by the media and society.

Being driven and motivated vs. toxic perfectionism

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve and get better at things. There’s also nothing wrong with being driven, the kind of person that works very hard and wants to go far in life. How can we tell if we, or someone we care about, is suffering from perfectionism in a way that is having a negative impact on them/their life?

·         A perfectionist will usually have unrealistically high standards. They might get an excellent grade on an essay, for example, but not be satisfied with it because they missed a few marks. They may hold other people to an unfair or unrealistically high standard, too, and could get frustrated if people do not meet those expectations.

·         They may micromanage, not trusting anyone else with the little things, even to their own detriment.

·         They may be quite extreme with their thoughts and actions. They might see things in a very black and white way – to use the essay example again, they might see a lower mark as ‘failing’ rather than just not doing quite as well as they’d hoped.

·         They might be quite obsessive over the little details. They might spend a very long time on a project, far longer than is necessary, just to ensure that everything is exactly the way that they want it.

·         Their self-esteem and confidence may be closely linked to success or failure. They might find it hard to separate their own self-worth from their actions, and their confidence may plummet if things don’t go exactly right.

·         They may focus on their ‘failures’, obsessing over what they did wrong, forgetting about their own successes or strengths.

How to live with (and celebrate) imperfection

You might not feel you exactly fit into the above description, but you still might find yourself worrying or becoming stressed from time to time about certain things. It’s very common to want things to be perfect. Unfortunately, life is rarely perfect.

Imperfection is something we all have to learn to live with, and it’s hard. I’m studying for a degree right now, and occasionally I get really good marks. Sometimes, though, my marks aren’t so great. It can be hard to deal with that, and I get tempted to beat myself up about it, berating myself over what I could have done differently.

Although it’s good to aim to be the best version of ourselves we can be, we shouldn’t aim to be perfect all the time. Why? Because it’s impossible. If we want to look exactly the way we want every single day, to ace every test and succeed in everything we try to do, then we’ll be constantly battling with disappointment. Sometimes, we won’t do as well as we want to do. Sometimes, things in our lives will go wrong. At some point in our lives, we’ll make mistakes– because everybody does.

How can we learn to live with imperfection?

·         Remember your strengths. Say you play netball, and your team lost a match. That doesn’t automatically make you a terrible netball player. Remember your strengths and past victories, in all areas of your life – don’t let your identity get caught up in this one thing.

·         Learn to embrace criticism. As you move through your studies or into working life, one important thing to learn is that criticism isn’t inherently a bad thing, and you can use it to grow and mature. Let yourself be disappointed or upset – it’s okay to feel that way. But know that you can use criticism to your advantage.

·         Remind yourself that it’s okay to not be good at everything. We can’t be good at everything, however – that would be impossible. For example, if you put me in a netball match, I would probably freeze and likely be not much use to my team. I am uncoordinated, clumsy, and generally rubbish at games that involve running or throwing and catching things. Do you know what? I’m okay with that. Everybody is different. I’m happy to let other people be good at team sports.

·         Take a break. If you find yourself obsessing over something – like a social media post, or planning an event, or a piece of coursework – let yourself take a break. Go outside, be with friends and family, go to the cinema, read a book – whatever you enjoy. Sometimes a rest and a bit of space is what you need to get some perspective.

Further support

At Revealed Projects, we always encourage people to share how they are feeling with someone (preferably an adult) they trust – for example, family members, friends, or teachers. Sometimes, it helps just to offload, other times, you may need a little more support. Either way it’s important to talk to someone. You don’t have to keep these feelings to yourself.

Revealed Projects is based in North Somerset, and we offer large or small group workshops around self-esteem – including topics such as identity, celebrating our uniqueness, finding our strengths, celebrating the way that we look, and challenging the messages we receive in the media. We also cover emotional well-being, healthy relationships, online relationships, sexual relationships, and sex and the media, all in an age-appropriate, engaging way. If you want to find out more about what we do, click here.