Kinstler: Woes of the gifted child

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Writer

It is no secret that Case Western Reserve University attracts a certain caliber of students: hard-working, driven, motivated and ambitious. Chances are we were the “gifted children” in our elementary schools, going to practices for a sport after school, then off to music lessons, before returning home to do our homework; there was a certain standard of performance which those around us came to expect. It is likely that this is what got us into CWRU and continues to define us. Just look at how many of us are double majors and minors; our varied interests are a testament to our work ethic. But what happens when “gifted” becomes perfectionism?

There is nothing wrong with striving to better yourself or wanting to learn more or seeking out opportunities that will set you apart. However, the line between perfectionism and scholarship is razor-thin, especially at a school like CWRU.

Even sitting down to write this article about perfectionism, I feel immense pressure to touch on every perfectionist scenario and say everything I possibly can, for fear that someone reading my article won’t be able to relate to it. In other words, I feel a need to be perfect even in the very act of acknowledging the irrationality of my own perfectionist tendencies. However, that is precisely what this article is about—the dangers of striving for perfection, especially in the ways in which we heal. I’m here to call you out, but don’t worry, I’m calling myself out too.

Specifically, I want to focus on self-oriented perfectionism. There is also other-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism, and I encourage you to do your own research into the other forms of perfectionism, but, unfortunately, word limits exist, so let’s just focus on you for the moment.

At its core, self-oriented perfectionism is setting excessively high standards for yourself coupled with overly critical self-evaluations. It is the “being your own worst enemy disorder.” However, the detriment of perfectionism in any of the three forms is that, along with having impossibly high standards, perfectionists assign irrational importance to being perfect. Because being perfect is so important, when perfectionists inevitably fail to meet their own expectations, it breeds feelings of worthlessness. If this is not combatted, it can quickly transform into full-blown depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health complications.

Furthermore, a facet of this mindset—which is concerningly left out of mental health literature—is that perfectionists, especially self-oriented perfectionists, expect to be perfect even in their healing, making healing nearly impossible. Having a relapse is a failure rather than a setback. Skipping a workout means you’re lazy rather than busy. Being sad, thinking about your ex, sleeping until noon, etc., can make perfectionists feel hopeless, like they can’t get better.

As perfectionists, we tend to have our eyes on the future. Still, it’s not our fault that we’ve been banking on being doctors since we were in second grade, thinking our future is our everything. However, healing requires us to think about our present moment. Healing means taking our days one at a time without judgment. It means acknowledging your current mood—good or bad—and then sitting with it. Having a bad day is just having a bad day, and it’s not an indication that we are failing. Healing requires us to realize that tomorrow is a new day.

When we bring our current mood into our future, we set up a self-fulfilling prophecy because we begin to ruminate. We begin to judge ourselves for feeling sad, angry, antisocial, etc. We may even start to panic that we will never feel better. Thus, we start the perfectionist cycle of criticism and judgment when we experience a negative emotion, including the dialogue that we are not enough. We might tell ourselves that we are not working hard enough in our healing because we would not be having negative emotions if we were. 

Moreover, when we ruminate rather than remain present, we allow our negative feelings to infect all of our thoughts until we only think about our negativity. This also means that our perception of our negativity is magnified compared to the actual severity of the situation. Our negativity bleeds into whatever thoughts we have, and if they are future-centered thoughts, then our future is bound to carry that negativity as well. This is exactly why suppressing your negative thoughts actually makes them stronger because your negativity weaves into other aspects of your life.

Instead, when you feel a negative emotion, acknowledge it. Don’t try to pretend like you’re not sad; it’s okay to feel your feelings. Once you recognize your mood state, try and pinpoint what triggered you to feel sad. Emotions are reactions to stimuli, so seek to find the stimuli. It’s important to express your negative emotions. However, this is not an invitation to become deleterious when sad or angry; still, it is important to find a healthy outlet like listening to music or going for a walk. 

Additionally, you can always reach out to someone to talk about what you’re feeling. A simple “I’m feeling sad right now, can we talk?” should do the trick. However, if reaching out is daunting, another great way to work through your feelings is by journaling, which gives you the space to fully acknowledge your feelings without fearing someone else’s judgment. Just ensure that you’re honest with yourself when you journal; otherwise, the exercise is futile. Having a healthy outlet is what I mean when I say “feel your feelings”; find an activity that gives you the space to work through and accept your emotions without unnecessary judgment. Understand that having a negative emotion is not a sign of low emotional intelligence; after all, nobody said that radical hedonism was the way to mental stability.

It’s okay to miss your ex, eat some ice cream, skip the gym or watch some Netflix. It’s okay to be sad, angry, afraid or more. Just ensure that you monitor your behavior. Making sadness and its resulting behaviors your norm is just as bad as rumination, it could mean it’s time to consider professional help.

Your expectation should never be perfection; it should be to be better than before.