When I was younger, I made a long list of New Year’s resolutions every year. These lists included between half a dozen and more than 20 resolutions, some of them straightforward (get straight A’s and meditate daily) and some very unrealistic (publish a bestselling novel by the age of 16). Over the course of the year, I pushed myself relentlessly, achieving only a few of the goals on my list. I especially liked challenging myself in fields that I was not naturally good at, such as sports. I thought it was worthwhile to constantly exert myself and strive for something more, that perfectionism was a positive trait because it meant that I didn’t settle for less. But I would inevitably fall short of my expectations. Nothing I did was good enough, because only perfection was sufficient — any flaws or shortcomings signified complete failure.
I no longer make a long list of resolutions at the start of every year. I realized that my goals were often unreachable (I never published that novel) and that I was only hurting myself by seeking perfection in everything I did. The answer didn’t lie in further exerting myself. Instead of focusing so much on self-improvement, I need to focus on self-acceptance, which is a lot more challenging. This mental pattern is entrenched within me — I’ve always expected a lot from myself and become extremely critical of any shortcomings. I’m even critical of my tendency to criticize. Having unreasonable goals and a crippling fear of failure has done nothing to make me happy, yet part of me finds it so hard to let go of these standards.
Even reaching these standards does not give me lasting satisfaction. I either find a way to trivialize my achievements, or then I set my eyes on some loftier goals, so that success is always just beyond my reach. I started at UC Berkeley this past semester and was intent on getting straight A’s — even a single A- would have been a tragedy. But when I did get a 4.0, I only felt momentary relief, which was surprisingly replaced almost immediately by a sense of agitation. I had expected to feel a lot happier, but I was so used to criticizing myself and focusing on what I didn’t achieve that I actually felt uncomfortable in a situation where I didn’t have a chance to complain. Even then, I tried to dismiss my achievement: my classes weren’t that hard to begin with, I could have done more outside the classroom, a 4.0 is not that significant anyways. I struggled to shut those voices off and tried to replace those thoughts with more positive, accepting ones. I knew that if I had gotten even a 3.9 I would have been furious with myself. Success was something imperative and mistakes were unforgivable.
Ultimately, while I didn’t get much happiness from my GPA, I did like the process. I loved all my classes, and actually enjoyed writing my papers. Perfectionism is usually concerned with the end result, but when I’m doing things that I love like writing, I find that I do much better when I’m not obsessing about the finished piece.
I have an idealized notion of how I want myself to be, and I feel disappointed and frustrated when I fall short of that form. It’s hard for me to acknowledge that I can’t achieve a certain ideal, which is especially true for me when it comes to body image. Even as a size 2, I am quick to zone in on all my flaws and struggle to accept that I can’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model post-photoshop and professional makeup. My body doesn’t match up to the image of perfection that I hold, and it won’t — no matter how much I work out or how much weight I lose. The only thing I can do is to accept the way I look.
Over the years, I’ve turned to meditation to help me deal with my perfectionist tendencies. This past weekend I took a meditation course where all the participants received gifts on the last day. For this gift exchange, we closed our eyes and passed the gifts along as music played, and the one that we had in our hands when the music stopped would be ours to keep. The idea was that we would receive what we needed at that point. The gift that I received was an Indian movie called “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” which translates to “You won’t get a second life” (or alternatively, YOLO). It served as a reminder that I need to start living now instead of waiting for the ideal conditions or trying to painstakingly choreograph some perfect life. I doubt that I will be thinking about my GPA or jean size on my deathbed, but I can imagine regretting being so critical and not enjoying what I do have.
I often get so caught up in striving for perfection that I forget to experience life. At this point, I’m trying to give myself permission to fail and to not take everything so seriously. No matter what I do, I’ll never be perfect. But I can be good enough.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected.