When I was younger, I was the girl who opted to skip the playground in preschool so I could finish a flawless paint job on a craft. I was the girl who asked her dad to ride his bike alongside her during the elementary school 5k fun run and tell her whether or not she was maintaining a decent lead on the person who had been bullying her. I was the girl who never practiced any musical instruments while her family was home because a song wasn't "good" unless it was perfect. Now, as a (sort of) adult, I am the girl who color codes her calendars, planner, closet, and class notes. I am the girl who loses hours of sleep listening to a recording of herself singing or watching tapes of her self-defense class on a loop, continuously critiquing her performance, noting what she should do better. I am the girl whose little brother teases her for having a heart attack if a drop of syrup flows off my pancake and infects my plate with its stickiness.
In the most insanely literal sense, I'm my own worst critic.
Many have supported and even egged on my ridiculous standards for myself over the years, often implying that this obsession is "cute" or "funny." For a long time, striving for perfection has been something I considered to be my strength (when it came to more serious subjects than syrup, of course).
My parents, particularly my mom, have always told me, "It's okay to not be perfect all the time," and for majority of my life, I shrugged the comment off, never taking it to heart or considering what "perfection" might be doing in terms of my mental health.
It wasn't until a few weeks into my freshman year of college that I became aware of the unnecessary anguish that accompanies perfectionism.
I sat down to play a piece on the piano. It had been a few weeks since I had last played due to recently moving into the dorms. As my hands touched the keys I began shaking uncontrollably, became nauseous, and for an undetermined amount of time, actually stopped breathing.
This wasn't the first, second, or fiftieth time I'd experienced this type of anxiety. I'd felt it anytime I'd thought to myself, "This teacher isn't going to like me if I don't make 'X' grade," or, "I can't ask for help from people because that's admitting defeat," or, "I can't go in that new restaurant because I don't already know exactly what I'm going to order and if I take 0.2 of an extra second to decide, people will get annoyed." The list irrational fears goes on and on. I remember coming home from school or practice or even a social activity with bleeding thumbs due to a nervous tick of rubbing my fingers together. But this...piano...this was something I loved to do. There was no competition and no performance. I knew cognitively that there was no pressure, but every fiber of my being said that there was.
To an extent, being a perfectionist has helped me achieve great things: good grades, organization, varsity team standings, etc. But ultimately my perfectionism has turned into something that isn't helpful, isn't cute, and isn't funny. It's debilitating.
In a recent journal entry written by my mom, she reflected on her journey in raising her oldest kid now that I have moved to a new state. "I think my biggest mistake was [...] unneeded pressure on myself, and subconsciously my daughter, to do everything 'right': a probable common curse handed to many oldests and onlys of perfectionist parents." I don't feel that my parents were the cause of my perfectionism and I really want them to know that. Likewise, I hope that they too will come to realize that it's okay to not be perfect all the time.
Since the day that I freaked out over a piano, I made a promise to myself that I would work on accepting my mom's words of wisdom. I know I will need to work to embrace imperfection if I want to be a better, happier me. I encourage others (perhaps even my own parents) who have felt the same intense fear and anxiety to also say to themselves, "It's okay to not be perfect," and to believe it. May the next few months be a period of tremendous growth.