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Perfection: the paralyzing paradox

By Jessica Lee

May 20, 2010 9:00 pm

Perfection. How many of us strive to attain this attribute? How many of us wish to be flawless?

After senselessly packing my schedule with extracurricular activities this year, akin to players stuffing their mouths with marshmallows in a game of Chubby Bunny, I still could not find an ever-eluding sense of satisfaction from myself. I attributed the void to the bottomless pit of greed that I maybe had for a heart: the voracity to be perfect.

And because we are students of a prestigious university, such as UCLA, I imagine our journey to and at UCLA has neither been an easy nor an average one ““ a path permeated with constant ventures to push our limits and to be the best. While some may approach such arduous endeavors with a constructive mentality, others may not.

Although perfection is perceived to be covetable, aspirations toward the superlative is de facto debilitating. In fact, perfectionism often serves as an obstruction from realizing one’s maximum potential.

Perfectionists are individuals whose exertions are compulsively focused on achieving big accomplishments, and this obsession with being paradisiacal is unhealthy. Known as maladaptive perfectionism, this infatuation is associated with setting grandiose, often impractical, goals. The psychological repercussions of constantly searching run the gamut from trivial issues such as writer’s block to major concerns that include eating disorders, depression, social anxiety and substance abuse.

Crippled by a fear of criticism and failure, falling short of expectations is especially demoralizing for perfectionists. Their sense of self-worth is grounded primarily in their successes. This vulnerability further prevents perfectionists from enthusiastically embracing novel challenges and executing tasks already in progress.

As their results continue to move in a direction away from their expectations, perfectionists may further doubt themselves. The bigger the emphasis on excellence, the bigger the obstruction to success, something known as the “perfectionism paradox.”

Thus, the hesitation to act often backfires by inciting inefficient time management, subpar work and inconsistent application, and thus culminates in the exact denouement that caused the apprehensiveness: results short of perfection. The inefficiency manifests itself in slow work, unnecessary time devoted to a project, meticulous attention to details, procrastination to avoid daunting projects and unnecessary stress. But the surplus efforts have little benefit, if at all.

Psychologist Peter J. Bieling of McMaster University in Ontario studied 198 students for perfectionism in 2003. Both perfectionists and nonperfectionists were asked what grades they expected from themselves on an upcoming midterm, and perfectionists, in general, tended to have higher grades in their sights than non-perfectionists. However, both groups had, on average, similar performances.

The perfectionist’s dismay of falling short of their goals had them inflict self-punishment: keeping their unrealistic goals or striving for even higher grades on the next exam. Such quixotic dreams can lead to continual shortcomings, culminating in feelings of inescapable inadequacy.

Scientific American reveals that nearly a quarter of 1,500 surveyed college students suffered from debilitating perfectionism in 2007.

However, certain traits of perfectionists are imperative for success and reaching one’s potential: the drive to succeed, the tendency to plan and organize, and the focus on excellence. But embracing shortcomings is paramount to pushing boundaries and brainstorming innovative ideas.

The healthy and working formula to maximize one’s potential lies in attitude. Rather than demanding perfection, one’s focus should be on improving and achieving. The ability to wish for success without being overly self-critical correlates with bigger accomplishments.

Furthermore, people who dream big without bashing themselves generally enjoy better health and moods, more self-confidence and satisfaction and increased sociability ““ a contrast from unhealthy perfectionism.

Perfection is not possible but rather something to strive for, so it’s prudent to embrace mistakes. As a result, I admit that I am a maladaptive perfectionist undergoing a self-induced therapy regimen of positive thinking and satisfaction.

Giving 100 percent of your effort is a more than legitimate reason to be content and fulfilled. Be proud of yourself.

Do you like your neurotic needs to be immaculate? E-mail Lee at [email protected]

Send general comments to [email protected]

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Jessica Lee
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