Young People Ask . . .
Why Do I Feel That I Have to Be Perfect?
“Since my father was a teacher, everyone expected me to have straight A’s. Sometimes I cried myself to sleep.”—Leah.*
“I’m a perfectionist. I have to be the best at something or do it in a completely different way from anyone else or there’s no point in doing it.”—Caleb.
DO YOU feel that you always have to be perfect? Do you constantly worry that no matter how hard you try, you are never quite good enough? Are you unable to handle any kind of criticism? When things go wrong, do you blame yourself, accusing yourself of being stupid, inferior, or unworthy? If you want something done right, do you feel that you have to do it yourself? Are you sometimes so afraid of failure that you procrastinate or become immobilized?
What about your relations with others? Do you find yourself friendless because no one around you is perfect enough? Are you obsessive about the failings and shortcomings of others? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you may be struggling with something called perfectionism. And if that is the case, you are hardly alone. The trait is common in youths—particularly among gifted or high-achieving youths.*
What causes perfectionism? Researchers have only theories. The book Perfectionism—What’s Bad About Being Too Good? suggests: “Perfectionism isn’t a disease; you didn’t catch it. Perfectionism isn’t hereditary; you weren’t born with it. So how did you end up being a perfectionist? Some experts believe that perfectionism develops during childhood. Family pressure, self-pressure, social pressure, media pressure, and unrealistic role models combine in a Big Push that propels some people into a lifetime of worrying, feeling guilty, and working too hard.”
Whatever its cause, a need always to be perfect can damage your life. Let us take a closer look at perfectionism and why it can harm you.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism involves more than simply striving for excellence or taking pride in a job well done. After all, at Proverbs 22:29, the Bible praises the man who is “skillful in his work.” The Bible also favorably mentions a number of individuals who cultivated various skills to a high degree. (1 Samuel 16:18; 1 Kings 7:13, 14) So it is good to strive for excellence, to set high but realistic goals. Thus one can “cause his soul to see good because of his hard work.”—Ecclesiastes 2:24.
The perfectionist, however, misses out on such satisfaction. His view of achievement is fundamentally unhealthy. According to some experts, perfectionism involves “intangible goals (i.e. perfection), and a constant lack of satisfaction, irrespective of performance.” As a result, perfectionism is “a chronic source of stress, often leaving the individual feeling that he/she is a failure.” One source thus defines perfectionism as “the irrational belief that you and/or your environment must be perfect.” It is “an all pervasive attitude that whatever you attempt in life must be done letter perfect with no deviation, mistakes, slip ups, or inconsistencies.”
But didn’t Jesus say: “You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? (Matthew 5:48) Yes, but Jesus was not saying that one could be perfect in the absolute sense. After all, the Bible teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) What, then, did Jesus mean? In the Bible the word “perfect” carries the idea of being complete. (Matthew 19:21) When Jesus said that we must be perfect, he was discussing love and encouraging his followers to be more complete in their love. How? By expanding their love to include even their enemies. The Bible writer Luke records Jesus as saying: “Continue becoming merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”—Luke 6:36.
Perfectionists, however, labor under the illusion that it is possible to be perfect in the absolute sense. They may therefore place heavy demands on other people. According to the book Never Good Enough—Freeing Yourself From the Chains of Perfectionism, perfectionists are “people who are frustrated by the way that others seem to do their jobs . . . In their opinion, the people around them neither care about doing a good job, nor take pride in their performance.”
Carly, for example, does well academically, having been enrolled in a program for gifted students. However, in personal relations she has been less successful. Because she wants everything to be perfect, she has lost most of her friends. “I think that they were too imperfect,” she explains.
Others may seek perfection, not from others, but from themselves. The book Never Good Enough explains that such ones feel that “they or their actions are not good enough . . . , and [they] are particularly concerned with what others think about them.”
The Problem With Trying to Be Perfect
Far from being healthy and beneficial, then, the quest for perfection often proves to be unhealthy and damaging. And far from promoting excellence, such an outlook often promotes failure. A Christian man named Daniel recalls working long and hard on an oral presentation that he was assigned to give in a class at a local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many in the audience commended him for a job well done. Daniel then received some tactful, helpful pointers from the instructor. The Bible encourages us to “listen to counsel and accept discipline.” (Proverbs 19:20) But instead of welcoming constructive criticism, Daniel felt like a failure. “I wanted to crawl into a hole,” he recalls. For weeks he experienced sleepless nights.
Perfectionism can therefore impede the learning process. In an article appearing on a youth-oriented Web site, a young girl named Rachel writes: “When I started high school I was determined to do well. I always was a straight A student and I didn’t see any reason why that should change.” But Rachel soon found that she had difficulties with algebra and received “only” a B plus. “To everyone else this was a good grade,” Rachel recalls, “but to me . . . it was an embarrassment. I started to panic and worry . . . I was afraid to ask for help from my teacher because I thought that if I admitted I needed help on my homework it would be acknowledging that I didn’t understand it. . . . Sometimes I almost convinced myself that dying would be better than failing.”
Driven by the fear of failure, some youths have even considered suicide. Fortunately, most youths do not contemplate taking such a drastic step. But as mental-health expert Sylvia Rimm observes, they may try to avoid failure by not risking it at all. According to Rimm, some perfectionists “don’t hand in assignments, they don’t take pride in their work, they forget their homework, they make excuses.”
On the other hand, other youths may go to extremes to assure themselves of success. “I would stay up late at night working on school projects to get them just right,” confesses Daniel. The problem is, such extremes are usually counter-productive. A sleepy student is more apt to perform poorly.
Little wonder, then, that perfectionism has been linked with chronic anger, low self-worth, guilt, pessimism, eating disorders, and depression. Most serious of all, though, perfectionism can harm one spiritually. For example, the Bible commands Christians to express their faith to others. (Romans 10:10; Hebrews 10:24, 25) However, a youth named Vivian held back from commenting at Christian meetings because of fear that she might not word things just right. A young woman named Leah expressed similar fears. She says: “If I say the wrong thing, others will come to the wrong conclusion about me. So I keep my thoughts to myself.”
Clearly, then, the need to be perfect is harmful and unhealthy. And if you possess any of the traits described in this article, you may see a need to make some changes in your thinking. A future article will discuss how you can do so.
Some of the names have been changed.
According to one study, 87.5 percent of the gifted students at one school had perfectionist tendencies.
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Fear of failure prevents some youths from finishing assignments
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Perfectionism can breed depression and low self-esteem