Growing up, I had to choose between being hurt for being too good or being hurt for not being good enough. There was no in between; those were my only options. So I chose to be perfect. It probably helped that I was born with relatively high intelligence, which allowed me to succeed academically with very little, if any, effort.
But it still ended up hurting me. Being perfect was viewed as an insult in my family. Being perfect meant that I thought that I was better than them. How could I have the audacity to think I was better than anyone, especially them? It made my parents angry, and they took that anger out on me. I could never take pleasure in an achievement; it ended up resulting in more pain.
I held on to perfection like it were a life raft, saving me from drowning. It’s the only thing I had in my life that gave me any sense of worth. Other people would tell me how intelligent I was, how much potential I had, how much talent I possessed. I needed that because it gave my life meaning.
Unfortunately, my need for perfection has hindered me in the long run. If I am not perfect, I feel worthless. I cannot bask in many of my achievements if I know I could have done better. I hold myself to (at times) impossibly high standards.
This was exemplified recently when I took the GRE. I told my therapist the unofficial raw scores I received, completely lacking any enthusiasm about them. I was such a mess when I took the exam that I knew, in my belief, that I had done poorly. My tremendous headache (self-induced) and lack of sleep just ruined everything for me.
“I know students that would be thrilled to have GRE scores anywhere close to yours.”
“But they’re not good enough.”
“You can get in to any school with scores like those.”
“But they’re not perfect.”
On some level, I knew my therapist was right. But I was so mad at myself because I didn’t get that perfect score. I could have slept longer. I could have not gone crazy and banged my head the day before. I could have eaten breakfast. I could have done better than I did. I need to be perfect or I’m not good enough.
So when any other person would be ecstatic with those scores, I could not take any kind of pleasure in what was, in reality, a considerable achievement. I talked about it as if I were talking about cloudy weather.
I also think my previous graduate school experience has hampered my academic outlook in general. I can no longer get excited about anything because no matter what I did before, I ended up not being good enough for the program. If I don’t get excited, I won’t be as hurt in the end when it doesn’t work out. It’s a twisted form of self-protection.
As a child, I held on to hope that perfection would save me. It never did. So why do I still need it in order to feel like I’m worth something?