March 2nd, 2021
Today, while attending a Womxn in STEM virtual panel discussion I was introduced to a phrase that was new to me but one I related to greatly: “Perfection Paralysis”. Suffering from perfectionism my entire academic life I had yet to hear this term but the concept makes a lot of sense. I have always know rationally that perfectionism doesn’t exist as real life isn’t perfect, there is no such thing.
Perfection paralysis occurs as a coping mechanism your brain employs to prevent a potential failure. We logically know perfection is impossible so we stop ourselves from trying to attain it, preventing disappointment. In this situation, we put so much stress on ourselves to succeed or be perfect that we get nothing done. We procrastinate or we burn out or we just never turn things in because we don’t think they are “good enough”.
During and very difficult graduate school interview I did at the beginning of 2020 the two interviewers asked me what was a weakness I thought I had and what I did to address it and better myself. I explained to them about my need to make everything perfect and how sometimes it can hold me back because perfection can never be achieved so sometimes you don’t try to complete anything because you know that it will never be perfect. The interviewers: old, white Northern European men whom I could tell already thought of me as beneath them, threw my answer back in my face.
“Well that hardly sounds like a weakness, wanting things to be perfect. It is a good thing to strive to be the best version of yourself,” One of them stated as a matter of fact.
At this point in the interview they had railroaded me with extremely difficult content knowledge questions that not even my tenured professors at my undergrad institution who had PhDs and 15+ years of research and teaching experience could answer. I knew it was a selective Master’s program I was applying for, and I was grateful to be granted an interview, but by the end of it I was positive it was not the right fit for me.
I did not argue with him, I did not explain how my perfectionism was not making me the best version of myself, but rather preventing me from being myself at all. I knew I was not perfect, no one is, but in my perfectionist mind the only version me that was allowed to exist was a perfect me. All other versions were inherently less than and not to be sought after. In theory, maybe trying to be your “best self” is helpful and leads down a path to success and productivity. But in practice you can only be the best that you can be in the moment with the resources and circumstances you have at the time. I had to be okay with not being perfect or I was getting nowhere. I had to believe I was being “good-enough” and that was okay.
I have noticed this paralysis crop up at many points in my life during various situations. When I felt I wasn’t doing perfect at a job or class I might stop showing up, stop doing assignments. When I felt I wasn’t a perfect friend I would feel immense guilt or maybe stop making an effort. Or the fact I have not started a YouTube channel because I know I cannot meet my high standards for myself. It was and sometimes still is a real problem, one I am still trying to address. How can I grow and learn if I am not allowed to make mistakes or be less than perfect? I feel only recently I have been able to start accepting my efforts as “good enough”, a kindness I only extended myself after the pandemic hit last March.
My cousin brought up a very interesting point to me a few months ago during one of our monthly chats when I have an emotional breakdown about school and she tries to console me. I expressed not feeling like I was reaching my true potential in my Genomics & Proteomics course. My expectations of myself were still at a pre-pandemic/pre-burn out level despite my current circumstances that I could be perfect and I didn’t want to half-ass things when I knew I could do better. She very candidly said to me not only was I giving myself unrealistic expectations in light of everything going on but also that my “half-assed” effort was some people’s full effort and so I could afford to half-ass something if it just made me average. I wouldn’t fail; I would be “good enough”. Now was no time to exceed expectations.
This is something I need to remind myself of daily. There is a delicate balance between doing my best and being realistic while also accounting for external circumstances and mental/emotional health. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to be better than we were the day before or try to improve our knowledge and skills, but it is to say we should not be paralyzed to attempt/complete something because we have already written ourselves off as imperfect.