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Unlearning perfectionism

Coming to terms with perfectionism.

Let me confess something: I am always terrified of not being able to live up to myself. I spent a long time gathering the courage to write this. A blank page is pristine, not to be marred by my half-baked thoughts and pretentious ramblings. Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, when I do produce work, it’s usually meticulous. On the other hand, I more often condemn myself to the ultimate failure: not trying. What is existence without excellence? Embarrassment, my mind supplies. I must apologise for myself before I’ve even begun, as if being bad at something is a moral deficiency.

Our education system enforces a hierarchy of intelligence which falsely conflates test results with individual worth. With a natural ability to excel academically throughout high school, I developed a sense of self-worth predicated on overachievement. After earning several accolades during the awards night in Year 7, my dad had warned me, “Don’t burn out from peaking too early.” Once you’ve reached the top, there’s nowhere to go but down. Through Year 11 and 12, I was especially driven by the fear of dropping in ranks, not because I had any particular aspirations for a degree but because my identity had become so inseparable from the illusion of being the “best”. Anxiety would simmer in my gut as I lay in bed at night, dreading the day we got our exam results back. When I did maintain my rank, I was always awash not with happiness, but with overwhelming relief. A relief that was fleeting in contrast to the chronic pain of failure and disappointment when a single mark lost had cost me my rank.

On the contrary, those who struggle with standardised testing come out of school with a distorted mentality that they will never amount to anything, diminished to numerical valuations of their worth. This is not surprising for a system that has undergone little reformation since its inception during the Industrial Revolution, an era that prioritised productivity and uniformity over creativity. The reality is that intelligence manifests in many different forms, whether logical, artistic, kinaesthetic, emotional, or social. One isn’t inherently better than the other.

Yet the road to unlearning toxic mentalities is long. The deep-seated need to be consistently perfect seeps into other aspects of my life, especially in my creative pursuits. My free time is interspersed with hobbies I enthusiastically launch into only to abandon when I don’t demonstrate immediate aptitude. Otherwise, I waste away long stretches of inertia wallowing in my disappointment. Mediocrity is inherent in the beginning, I tell myself. Progress is never linear. But the chasm between me and those who have mastered their craft seems impossibly wide. If I’m not a prodigy, what’s the point?

We must learn to dissociate our self-worth from our work. One terrible painting does not make you terrible at painting. We should not condemn mediocrity. That is not to say we should strive towards it, but rather accept it as an inevitable by-product of the learning process. So what if I create something average? That doesn’t mean I am doomed to be average. So what if I’m doomed to be average? That doesn’t mean I don’t have worth to contribute to the world. Capitalism has ingrained in us the idea that we mustn’t waste our time pursuing hobbies unless we are good enough to monetise them. The truth is that the primal instinct to create is what makes us so beautifully human.

So, go draw that lopsided picture. Go write that nonsensical story. Go sing that song off-key. Go dance on two left feet. Go stumble through the wrong notes on the piano. Despite the ever-present possibility of failure, within you lies its most potent adversary: the infinite capacity to overcome. 

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