Living with Perfectionism
If a professor has ever called you a “diamond carver,” you might want to consider scaling back.
By Jill Phelan, St. Vincent College
Have you ever spent hours huddled over an assignment, stressing about every little detail until you finally deemed it acceptable to submit? Because I have, countless times.
Hi, my name is Jill, and I’m a perfectionist—or at least I used to be.
All my life, my OCD-like traits have been both a blessing and a curse (mostly a soul-crushing, mind-draining plague upon my existence).
True, it can come in handy when producing top notch work, but my tendencies more often than not leave me hyperventilating in a pool of my own blood, sweat and tears—all for, say, a thousand-word essay, for example.
The feeling of pouring my heart into a project used to leave me with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. But you’d be amazed at how quickly a teacher can beat that right out of you.
Back in high school, I pulled an all-nighter for my history class creating the most in-depth, awe-inspiring, beautiful Prezi (the PowerPoint for overachievers).
I’m telling you, this complex work of art was decked out with over 100 slides of pictures, facts, videos—each perfectly placed in chronological order on a world map—to capture the most precise timeline of World War II that has probably ever been produced.
I left that morning bursting with jittery excitement and a wicked adrenaline rush. I remember thinking how much my teacher was going to love it (he was a WWII buff, so I couldn’t wait to impress his socks off).
I told him that morning about what he had to look forward to for class so that he could properly prepare to have his mind blown.
And then, I kid you not, fourth period rolled around only to have him collect everyone’s assignments—except for mine.
Instead, he had me show about 30 seconds of my presentation to the class, gave me a pat on the back, slapped an A in his gradebook and sent me back to my seat, flash drive in hand. He didn’t even keep the damn thing to look at later.
The point to my tragic and somewhat longwinded story is that I was beyond livid to have spent 12 grueling hours on that Adonis of a history project for that unworthy man. In reality, I could’ve just as easily spent ten minutes on it and still gotten the same amount of credit for it. Talk about complete bullshit.
I wish I could say that that was the only time I have had my spirit crushed like an empty beer can at a frat party. But alas, I’ve been let down more times than a Chick-fil-A lover on a Sunday afternoon.
Thankfully, though, some good came out of my jading experiences. I managed to see how devastating the effects of my perfectionism really were on my well-being.
In getting worn down over the years of going the extra mile, I began to notice a significant weight being lifted from my shoulders. The urge to go all out became less and less persistent.
I started to find a balance between caring too little and caring too much. Because if anything, I realized the mental toll my obsessive habits took on me.
The first time I told myself, “Screw it, this is good enough,” and turned in an assignment that wasn’t nitpicked to death, I felt freer (and maybe a bit twitchy).
I had pushed myself to submit work that would make the grade, but that deep down I knew wasn’t my best (in my mind, my best was 110 percent and usually overanalyzed). It was nerve-wracking, but after I got the project back—accompanied by a big fat A—I was so relieved that I didn’t torture myself to do better.
Just to clarify, I’m not trying to promote intentionally slacking off. I think you should strive to try your hardest, just maybe not all the time.
In my opinion, you don’t need to overextend yourself for an introductory level class that’s not even in your field of study. Conserve your energy for the courses that will make or break you in your major.
When I find myself in danger of going all out for something trivial, I have to take a minute to put my mind back on track, making a mental note to scale back.
College is a marathon, and usually I’m the super eager athlete who starts out sprinting. When I get wrapped up in my perfectionism, I don’t pace myself, which isn’t healthy.
It’s not a bad trait to have, but it’s one that needs to constantly be put into check, because if I let it go haywire, I’ll end up slowing myself down and needlessly torturing my brain. And then what good am I to anyone?
Expecting perfection of yourself can be a good motivator, but it can also hold you back if you’re not careful.
I couldn’t tell you how many empty journals I have lying around because I was too afraid to fill them with flawed writing. So I recently started doing something proactive to help quiet my inner beast. Before I even touch pen to paper, I rip out the first page of the book, leaving behind the jagged edge.
Seeing that blemish as soon as I lift open the cover relieves any pressure I might feel to achieve the impossible.
Simple tricks similar to mine can help make your everyday tasks that much easier, making you saner and more productive in the long run. Trust me, the little victories add up.
Being a “diamond carver,” as a professor once labeled me, used to be the only way I could feel satisfied with the work I handed in. I was convinced that was the only way I could be happy with myself—but not anymore.
Now, I can rest easy knowing that I’m still putting my best foot forward, I’m just going about it a bit differently. And in the end, I’m a healthier person for cutting myself some well-deserved slack.