I want to preface this post by saying I am by no means an expert at this topic. I wouldn’t even consider myself an amateur. Battling perfectionism has always been one of my greatest challenges, but I hope that telling a piece of my story will help you feel less alone in this battle.
This time last year, I was on a plane to Italy with my fiancé, running away from 4 years of stress to a seemingly euphoric college-free future. I had just walked across the stage in my freshly-pressed cap and gown, cords galore hanging from my neck. I walked off that stage and practically right onto the plane for my graduation trip of a lifetime thinking I would never – positively NEVER – go back to school.
What a stark change from my entire childhood. I grew up convinced I would be the first person in my family to gain the letters “PhD” after my name. I loved school so much that I seriously considered how I could financially afford being a lifetime student.
Then college hit and my relentless pursuit of perfection threw me off a cliff. I had to have a 4.0. I had to stay up into the wee hours of the morning studying for an exam that I probably would’ve gotten an A on if I had stopped 5 hours beforehand. I had to be a leader in every club I was passionate about. I had to be perfect in every aspect.
At this point, you might be rolling your eyes because you know me all too well and just know that’s who I am. Sure, it’s who I have always been, but that doesn’t mean it was okay. Was it okay to push my friends away, turn down offers to grab dinner, or turn in early because I had class (not even a huge test) in the morning? Was it okay to stress myself into chronic neck pain – pain so severe that it almost forced me to take a semester off at one point? The answer to all of those questions is a big, fat NO.
Because of that incessant desire to be perfect in college, I made the adamant decision early in my senior year that I was done with school forever, despite how much I truly loved it. I had somehow convinced myself that all of those personality traits I had carried throughout my life up until that point were a product of school and not a product of just who I am as a person. I was quick to blame the system for causing this behavior. After all, test scores and recognitions at banquets and commencement are how we measure a student’s academic success. A busting-at-the-seams résumé is what students are told companies look for in a competitive job market.
What I’ve come to realize over the past year, though, is that my perfectionism was in fact not caused by the school system structure, even if it was exacerbated by it. (Shocker) Perfectionism is a personality trait that grows within you from a young age, and it can be tamed. Which means even though I was obsessive over grades and extracurriculars in undergrad, it doesn’t mean that behavior is engraved on my entire being forever.
What I’ve also realized over the past few months is that I do want to further my education. I want to take classes that are meaningful to me and my career. I want to set myself up for a more successful career now while I am young and have the time. Before just recently, I shied away from those dreams because quite frankly I was scared of how my perfectionism would come out in grad school. What if I send myself into overdrive like I did in undergrad, pushing away everyone I love in the meantime? What if I stress so much that my chronic neck pain comes back? What if…what if…what if… The “what ifs” were playing Whack-A-Mole with my future inside my head for months every time the thought of grad school came up, until finally, I stopped putting quarters in the game.
If you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you have similar feelings. Perhaps you were on the same level of perfectionism as me in undergrad. Maybe you are battling perfectionism in other areas of your life – your marriage, your home, your job (don’t worry, I’m in those boats as well). Do me (and yourself) a favor – cut yourself some slack. Believe in yourself that you have the courage and strength to overcome this.
Recently, I applied and was accepted to Purdue’s Online Engineering Graduate Program, which will allow me to finally get that graduate degree I’ve been thinking about while still working full-time. It will be tough, I have no doubt about that. I am positive I will struggle with perfectionism in this journey just the same way I struggle with it in other parts of my life. But this trait, like most others, is malleable. It can ebb and flow with varying environments on its own, and you can work to mold it into a trait that brings you success and joy. Don’t be afraid to pursue something new just because it has caused you pain and trouble in the past. Take that Whack-A-Mole mallet away from Mr. Perfectionism and take back control of your dreams, your future, and who you want to be.