Growing up as a Disney watcher—as so many of us did—it was easy to catch onto so many clichés. Hannah Montana promised us that “nobody’s perfect,” and her Disney peer Selena Gomez offered a much different piece of advice with the familiar chorus of “Who says you’re not perfect.” For me, the conversation with perfection was much bleaker than a Disney pop song.
When I was growing up, I felt that young people who suffered most from the burdens of perfectionism were the ones with strict, authoritative parents. However, my parents only expected my siblings and me to give our all into whatever we did. That didn’t mean being the 4.0 student or top athlete but simply trying our best while being respectful human beings. Even with my parents’ constant support and understanding, I pushed myself too hard to be “perfect.”
Now looking back, I realize my goal of being an ideal student and child started early. In elementary I studied to get 100% on my spelling tests, and I would even rat myself out if I had done something wrong. From an early age, I thought that to be my best self I had to impress and please all of my teachers and authority figures in my life. Leading into middle school that continued. Every mistake I ever made, whether it was in or out of school, I took harder than any middle schooler should have.
Middle school was when I discovered my love for competition dance. The world of competitive dance was an excellent place for me to become a better dancer and to meet new people, who would later become lifelong friends. It was also a place where my pursuit of perfection began to escalate. When I first started competing with solos, I felt a reasonable amount of nervousness for being on a stage on my own. However, when I approached my mid-teen years those feelings inflated. I became overwhelmed with anxiety. When I made mistakes onstage, I was taken over by a sense of failure and felt I had disappointed my teachers and parents. It wasn’t rare for me to leave the stage and burst into tears. Those tears weren’t over trophies or awards, but because I didn’t reach what I saw as “perfection.” Performing was supposed to be fun for me, but my reach for an unattainable goal took away the enjoyment.
Dance wasn’t the only area that this happened in. My goal since early middle school was to graduate as valedictorian. That goal led me to having a single late assignment push me to the edge because I knew that I could do better. Trying to be a perfect student and dancer was stretching me thin. I spent hours after school at the studio, and what little free time I had left was spent on homework.
The worst part of this battle to be perfect is it took the things I loved, dancing and learning, and made them mentally exhausting. I finally came to my watershed moment the Spring semester of my Junior year. My teachers had finalized the grades; it wasn’t surprising to me, since I worked so hard to get straight A’s. However, the class rank did surprise me: I was second. It really shouldn’t have surprised me because my peers were taking some of the few AP classes our school offered. Nevertheless, I was shocked. After this discovery, I went into my family’s kitchen and told my mom and sister with tears in my eyes. What made this part even harder is that they were fine with the second-place finish. They were proud, if not a little annoyed with my tearful, angry reaction. The two of them tried to explain to me how this development wasn’t something to get worked up over. This only made me angrier. I thought that somehow number two was going to be a disaster for me and my future, and they just couldn’t understand that. As summer came, I still hadn’t accepted the idea of being second; however, I had some time to simmer down and ponder what that really meant for me.
Finally come my senior year, I realized that I had to take things for what they were worth. A “B” wouldn’t make my parents, teacher, or friends think any less of me, and it shouldn’t make me think less of myself. My dancing changed as well; I felt I was able to perform and tell a story on stage like I truly loved to do. Not to say I went to zero stress, but I was finally able to accept most of my mistakes and understand that mistakes gave me a chance to learn. Oddly enough, it took one of my goals being denied for me to realize that there is so much more to who I am than perfection. I mean, even in ‘second place’ I was able to have a gratifying speech at graduation with the valedictorian, which I remember being one the best experiences in my high school career.
Making mistakes are what make us who we are, not a detriment to our character. Perfection only limits our ability to enjoy what we love to do. If you struggle with perfectionism, try to take a step back and look at the big picture. There is so much more to life than being perfect or making others think you are without fault. Take it from me, a recuperating perfectionist: life with mistakes can be quite joyful.