Why trying to be perfect hurt my self-esteem

Eimer talks about her perfectionism journey and how learning to appreciate effort rather than perfection has helped her self-esteem.

Written by Eimer Crowley


For most of my life I’ve described myself as a perfectionist. I’m a high achiever who wants everything I do to be the best it can be. This mindset throughout my life has damaged my self-esteem and confidence in myself.

In primary school I was friends with a group of really competitive girls. We were all quite intelligent and I felt there was this unspoken pressure to be the best. The smartest. The fastest runner. Perfection to me at this time was not merely wanting to be one of the best, but to be the best. I was constantly comparing myself and my abilities to others. Instead of being proud of what I accomplished and how hard I worked, I would feel jealous that I hadn’t gotten full marks in a spelling test like the other girls.

Perfection and my self-esteem

I constantly felt like I was not good enough. This feeling of inadequacy translated into secondary school where the focus on academia increased. In first year, I struggled a lot with anxiety and had other personal issues, one of which was my dad being diagnosed with cancer. The only aspect of my life that I felt I had control over was my performance in school. I had always placed such importance in this and I threw myself into every project and test. Perfection to me was getting a higher mark than the last time. My competition was now with myself and I began to associate my self-worth with my grades. When I got a result I was pleased with, I felt good about myself. However, when I wasn’t satisfied with a result, I felt rotten. At a time where my self-esteem hit rock bottom, I yearned for a feeling of accomplishment and reassurance that I was not only doing enough, but excelling.

I’ve noticed that a lot of high achievers often say, when asked about their weaknesses “Well I’m a little bit of a perfectionist”, with a shrug of the shoulders and a guilty smile. Society seems to think that perfectionism is an acceptable “weakness” – it shows that they are determined, hardworking and ambitious. Do we want an employee who doesn’t work enough or works too hard? This is the environment I surrounded myself with.

A fear of failing

I’ve learned that the more stress and pressure I put on myself, the less productive and motivated I am. The fear of failing resulted in frequent bouts of procrastination. Putting off the tasks as much as possible delayed the possibility of failing my standards. I often felt I couldn’t produce any piece of work that wasn’t my best. As I consistently had a high standard of work, I feared disappointing teachers who had high expectations of me, which is ridiculous because most teacher want you to do your best, whatever that best is on that particular day, or in that moment.

One day I came across this powerful advice, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, because doing it poorly is better than not doing it”. Washing your face when the thought of a shower sounds like too much effort, is better than not washing at all. Doing 10 minutes of yoga when the thought of doing 20 minutes of cardio seems exhausting, is better than not moving at all. Starting a task doesn’t have to be the best piece of work produced, but “half – assing” a task is better than not doing anything. This advice really broke through my block of procrastination and I remind myself of it whenever I’m feeling unmotivated.

How counselling has helped

I’ve gone to counselling throughout the years for anxiety and self-esteem, and have come away with some great lessons. I’ve worked a lot on not putting so much pressure on myself and being proud of what I accomplish, big and small. Right now, perfection means to me being happy with something I’ve worked hard at. Sometimes this is attainable, other times perfection seems a million miles away. I’m still hard working, passionate, and a high achiever. But it’s ok if I have an off day, it’s alright if I’m unmotivated or nervous for an exam. My feelings are valid and I now know that I can support myself when I’m feeling this way through skills I’ve learned in counselling.

My changing definition of perfection

Although a lot of that harmful perfectionist mindset is in the past, it’s still an aspect of who I am today. It’s so easy to fall back into that mindset. The odd time I’ll hear people talking about their study timetables and I’ll catch myself thinking,” they are working harder than me, I need to do more.” I suppose realising that I am enough has been a game changer for me. I’m not going to live my life in numbers – percentages in an exam, kilograms on a scale, followers on social media, whatever it is.

My definition of perfection has definitely changed over the years. From comparing myself to others, to associating my worth with my results and finally achieving a grade I am satisfied with, perfection is such a temporary and relative word. I’m slowly learning to quieten the critic inside me and embrace becoming a good-enough-ist.

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