Texas Tech University

Perfectionism: A Double-Edged Sword

by Juan Sebastián Mora Martínez

Many believe perfectionism to be a purely constructive trait, a choice to pursue excellence. This is far from the truth.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." This quote by Vince Lombardi encapsulates the complex and often misunderstood concept of perfectionism. As humans, we have to accept our inherently flawed condition. However, we perfectionists frequently try to minimize, if not vanquish, our natural imperfections by demanding of ourselves the highest personal standards.

Growing up, I was always a high achiever. But it wasn't until age 12 or 13 when perfectionism started invading every aspect of my life, from academic performance to soccer and gaming. Almost everything I did had to be methodical and carefully thought upon. I remember how my parents and teachers would congratulate me for always having to-do lists targeting every week's homework. The problem with being a perfectionist, however, is that you are never fully satisfied with your achievements.

One common myth about perfectionism is that it's a purely constructive personality trait, synonymous with hard work and determination. This is far from the truth. I vividly recall the final exam season of my senior year of high school. Every time I tried to sit down and study, anxiety would overtake me as I tried to accommodate every aspect of my desk for enhanced focus while studying. It felt like being on a plane with constant turbulence. In my perfectionist's logic, I could only engage in serious study if my workspace reflected an academic atmosphere. I moved pens, rearranged the position of my phone, and adjusted my chair and monitor. The result was a fractured focus, as the compulsion to minimize these “workspace flaws” deflected attention from deep study.

a very tidy desk

When I sat down to study, my workspace had to look perfect.

While I ended up scoring high on my finals, the intense sense of burnout, lack of motivation and general anxiety fueled by my perfectionist instincts made that final exam season never-ending. You see, perfectionism is about not curbing behaviors or thoughts you deem perfect until they generate some type of reward or sense of order. And then you want even more.

Another misconception about perfectionism is that it's a choice. Sure, the behavior might be distinguished by an unrelenting pursuit of infallibility, but being a perfectionist is often a deeply ingrained trait driven by internalized fears and insecurities. The fear of failure. The fear of falling short. The fear of humiliation.

I remember 10th grade. I had a major oral presentation that required me to analyze the poem: “Penelope” by Carol Ann Duffy. I began preparing for this presentation right after it was assigned. I brainstormed several times, did three outlines and five drafts before I was content with the final script. Suddenly there I was, presentation day. “You're up” my teacher said. I'd formed so many irrational expectations that my anxiety was through the roof. These expectations revolved around the idea that I had to get the best grade in the class and failure could not happen. I said to myself, “Juanse, you got this, you practiced fifty times.” But saying that only made it worse. And so I began: “In this particular poem, Duffy is retelling the famous story of Penelope which belongs to Greek mythology...”

All at once, I blanked out. I was delivering my presentation on autopilot. The only clear thought in my head was “avoid.” Avoid failure, avoid falling short, avoid embarrassment. In other words, avoid my human condition.

The result was predictable. I couldn't finish my presentation and ended up getting a 60/100. Thankfully, in my attempt to cope with those insecurities, I discovered journaling.

a person writing in a journal

Journaling allows me to engage with my heart and express myself.

In his article, “Burnout to Balance”, author and Reiki master Kelsey J. Patel shares a journaling exercise called “free”, which involves writing down your feelings and fears, releasing old ways, engaging with your heart, and expressing yourself. Patel's exercise has allowed me to channel my emotions and energies toward things that really matter. During this journey I've learned to live in the moment and appreciate the beauty of life, while also moving forward with my goals. In the process, I've become better at managing my high standards and accepting my imperfect human self. One doesn't have to follow Patel's exact technique when journaling, however. Patel's message is that the practice of journaling facilitates the surfacing of emotions, enabling us to initiate their processing. It serves as a means to enhance our emotional state, shed light on our issues, and eventually attain self-acceptance.

Perfectionism is not just a personal issue, but a societal one. Many of my fellow perfectionists describe feelings of pressure from friends, family, and coworkers to constantly strive for excellence, acceptance, and respect. In the end, by better understanding the experiences of perfectionists and the different techniques to cope with this personality trait, we can find ways to achieve balance between striving for greatness and maintaining mental health.

Juan Sebastián Mora Martínez is a business management major with a keen interest in natural sciences, particularly astronomy. In his academic pursuits, he enjoys exploring the intersection between management principles and scientific advancements. When he's not immersed in his studies, Juan is an avid soccer player and gaming enthusiast. Having lived in multiple countries, Juan brings a unique, global perspective to both his academic and personal life.

Learn more about a Texas Tech education in Costa Rica.