How Much Is Perfection Worth?


Sheyla O'Donnell and Emmy Daniel

       The consistent late nights she spent studying and the slight spasm of her hand as she stared at her pile of scrawled notes. Her vision turns blurry as sleep beckons her gently. But, she can’t. She has to study just a bit more. And, she won’t regret it. Once she sees the gleaming score on her exam, she’ll finally be proud of herself. Until she thinks about the next test and how she should have begun studying for that one already. Or,how the grade she got was impressive but just not impressive enough. It wasn’t as good as her neighbor’s. She wasn’t as good as her neighbor. Now suddenly, voices that resemble herself or her worst enemy begin swirling around in her brain, degrading her until she can’t take it anymore. Perfection is the main prize, and the need to be perfect plagues her body until she breaks. And she’s left with the pieces. 


      What is perfection really? A simple eight-letter word that is a standard most high-achieving human beings strive towards as if it’s even remotely attainable. Being without flaw or imperfection is the simplest way of putting it. And yet, humans weren’t made to be perfect. They weren’t supposed to be void of any faults or defects. That is not the natural state. And, to attempt to reach the standard of perfection is not a feasible goal. You’ll break yourself with feelings of inadequacy and stress until you think this anxiety and stress is normal. You’ll ruin yourself until there’s nothing left.


      Studies indicate that nearly half of U.S. high school students report feeling highly stressed while at least one in four students have difficulty managing anxiety. Throw in the relentless pressure to achieve, mixed with constant social and academic comparisons, and you have the recipe for perfectionistic tendencies. And,recent research shows that perfectionism is on the rise. In a meta-analysis of students in 12th grade, researchers found an increase in all percentages and aspects of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016. Thomas Curran & Andrew P. Hill wrote in the article, “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time”, “Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement, how they should look, and what they should own. Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.” 


     Putting pressure on ourselves to attain the unattainable can lead to various forms of exhaustion. Anxiety, depression, anger, and guilt can be the unintended results. We may find ourselves being overly cautious, not willing to take risks, focusing on mistakes rather than successes, setting unrealistic goals, procrastinating, and over-analyzing every step.  


      While striving for high achievement is admirable, giving ourselves a break and focusing on bettering our health should always come before. It is alright to falter. It is acceptable to ask for help. It is vital to recognize the pressure and address it through daily stress management strategies and serve as counterweights to the stress.


       An anonymous interviewee has been willing enough to give a few instances where striving towards perfection has ruined her mental health for a while. The person in question takes all honors classes, plays instruments, and participates in a few sports. Yet, she recalled numerous times where all she felt was overwhelming anxiety and even depression throughout the school year. No matter how much she would study or practice, if she didn’t meet a standard she held herself up to, she couldn’t be proud of herself. And, it’s not that she wouldn’t; it’s that she was incapable of the feeling. It was alien or unknown. 

         She dreamt of prestigious schooling after high school and countless high-achieving dreams that might seem impossible, and maybe they were. But to her, they were plausible and close if she just worked hard enough. She would be at the top of her game if she wrote enough study guides. If she listened to every imperfection that she played and made a note to fix it, she would achieve her goals. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Perhaps she would burn out during her four years of schooling and crash before her dream finally began. Nights spent with tear-stained study guides and homework were typical for her. She was isolating herself from her family and friends just until this test, only for another test to come up. Mental breakdowns were bi-monthly occurrences that caused her friends to worry when she came to school the next day. During the interview, she uttered these words, “I’ve thought about scenarios where I would go back to high school and what I would change. Maybe a certain outfit would never see the light of day, or I wouldn’t ever go after that boy, but one of the hardest dilemmas for me was wondering if I would push myself as hard as I had. Would I put my blood, sweat, and tears- and let’s face it, mostly tears, into the perfect academic record? Or would I go to all the games and hang out with my friends every day? Would I spend more time being a child before I was forced to grow up? The answer is I don’t know.” 


       The experience of our interviewee mirrors that of many Ivy League college students. Isabel Ruane, a Harvard graduate, outlines the process of achieving entry into an Ivy League school in the article, “Effortless Perfection.” Her high school self checked off the external boxes of a well-balanced life. Yet, internally, she was in turmoil, terrified of not doing everything from relationships to clothes to academics with grace and precision. Isabel was certain that her “affectation of effortless perfection,” secured her acceptance into an Ivy League college.  


     Once a freshman strolling through the Yard, Isabel relaxed her self-imposed constraints and allowed herself grace. But her close friend at Harvard, one who deceived even those closest to her into believing she embodied effortless perfection, experienced an acute mental crisis of severe depression and anxiety lasting days, resulting in the complete shut down of her ability to function. Her experience reflected not only an alarming increase in mental health issues specific to Harvard but also indicated to high-achieving campuses everywhere. From 2014 to 2018, Harvard undergraduates reported an increase in depressive symptomatology from 22% to 31%; and, those reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder increased from 10% to 30%. In the summer of 2020, the Harvard administration released the Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health which found that Harvard students are experiencing “rising levels of depression and anxiety disorders, and high and widespread levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other conditions.” Surely, it is time to step back and allow ourselves time to be human.   


      As Isabel Ruane reflects, she states that our duty to the world is to not strive for perfection. Instead, our responsibility is to take care of ourselves to help give back to the world and those within it. So, as we wrap up this school year, let’s allow ourselves time to breathe, time to cultivate friendships and time to support those around us. Let’s allow ourselves to accept support in return. Perfect? Maybe not, but messy, beautiful, and balanced, okay.    


     And as this comes to a wrap, there will still be a question in everyone’s mind if reaching for perfection really is this bad. Does it really warp your mind and poison your body like an illicit substance? Is this just a premature cry for upcoming students to stop this demented behavior? Perfection isn’t a feasible goal. That is a fact. So, if you’re still reaching and reaching for that perfection that seems to be hanging like a golden apple on a seemingly, low-hanging branch, then you’ll get nowhere. You’ll wear yourself thin like a ball of yarn until you’re frayed and splitting at the ends. So, in the end, it’s your choice whether or not striving for perfection is worth it. Because that is all it will ever be is seeking. You will always be reaching and reaching for a goal that will always seem in grasp until it’s galaxies away once more. So take these ruminations and think about them long and hard. How much are you willing to give up for the illusion of perfection?