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Editorial: It’s okay to be imperfect

Striving to always earn good grades, landing that job offer you’ve always wanted, belonging to a large friend group—all of these goals are familiar to us as college students. These goals are particularly lauded at an institution such as Case Western Reserve University, where it feels like we must always chase after success. But sometimes success and perfection are not attainable; sometimes, no matter how much effort you put into your academic, professional or social life, you just can’t match up to your ideals.

The term for these thought patterns and behavior is perfectionism, and it encompasses three elements: First, we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards that have little basis in reality. Second, we judge ourselves and others based on those standards with strong criticism. And third, we base our self-worth on whether or not we attain those standards. A vicious cycle can emerge from self-criticism: If you judge yourself harshly because you didn’t attain “perfection,” then you might start to think that you’re a failure and can’t do anything right, which lowers your motivation to reach your goals—and then the cycle restarts, leading to an endless positive feedback loop.

Perfectionism is also not a viable strategy to push yourself to perform well. According to Thomas Curran, a researcher for the American Psychological Association, linking your self-worth to the impossible standard of perfection will only lead to unhealthy outcomes. Perfectionism is never your friend.

Psychological research identifies three different types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed. Many of us are familiar with self-oriented perfectionism, which involves setting unrealistic standards for ourselves and then judging ourselves harshly afterward. Other-oriented perfectionism directs unrealistic expectations toward other people and judging them harshly, which can be damaging for interpersonal relationships. And there are times when we believe that society or the people in our lives expect too much from us—this is called socially prescribed perfectionism.

This damaging mindset goes beyond simply getting good grades in school, though that is a common trait in college; perfectionism can affect several other aspects of our lives. In social situations, for example, we might expect ourselves to be the funniest, most likable and most interesting person in the room. We might worry that we are boring or “not cool enough” to fit in. Any potential signs of negative judgment from others, regardless of how real or serious those signs are, can cause even greater dread.

For perfectionists, socializing can feel like a social test—make a wrong move or say something out of turn and you can get points marked off. In fact, striving for perfection can contribute to social anxiety, which can in turn further exacerbate perfectionistic tendencies. Then the vicious cycle starts again.

So how can we overcome the destructive cycle of perfectionism and judgment? There are a few solutions.

Take some time and evaluate your beliefs surrounding your own expectations and those of others. Consider the factors leading to those beliefs and question them. Ask yourself if those beliefs are true and fair; and if you have worries, take a second to remove yourself from the situation. Take note of the evidence for and against your worries. Though your worries are still possible—there is always at least a small chance that they could come true—you might realize that the evidence suggests that you will likely be okay. In most cases and for most people, they will be okay. Many times, the self-critic inside each of us wants to make the worst case scenario seem like the most likely scenario, but the two aren’t usually interchangeable.

In addition to examining your beliefs and questioning your worries, allowing yourself to live in the present moment can help immensely with mental health conditions such as social anxiety. Grounding techniques, which involve bringing your attention to the present instead of dwelling on your thoughts, are especially helpful. If you’re experiencing anxiety, pay attention to the environment around you: What can you see, smell, hear, touch or taste? Bring your focus to the object you are holding or the chair you are sitting on. Slowly breathe in and out. Remove yourself from the past or the future and just focus on the present. Don’t let that inner critic control you.

Above all else, reserve some compassion for yourself. Instead of focusing on what you’re doing wrong, focus on what you’re doing right. Consider the progress you’ve made and can still make. Simply being here in this world is enough of a reason to be happy. And sometimes, just being good enough, or even imperfect, is perfectly okay.

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About the Contributor
Unsigned editorials are typically written by the opinion editor but reflect the majority opinion of the senior editorial staff.

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