What is Perfectionism?

Welcome to Part 1 of What is Perfectionism?, a three part series about the systemic and intersectional implications of perfectionism. This series was written by Ma’yan intern, Barae Hirsch. Learn more about Barae from her bio at the end of her piece.

Part 1: Perfectionism is systemic. And perfection is an imaginary concept.

Mainstream opinion has shifted significantly since mentioning “perfectionism” as a weakness in a job interview was an effective tactic. Now, serious perfectionism is seen less as a humblebrag and more as a true struggle. Yet even as the symptoms of perfectionism become increasingly recognized as dangerous, its instigators continue to rise and expand. Today’s young people are expected to participate passionately in endless pursuits, excel in them all, and maintain a sense of balance, humility, and even self-deprecation throughout. Competition in all areas — social, academic, and others — is more aggressive than ever. Failure to emerge as the absolute best in every undertaking is terrifying for many teenagers.

What distinguishes perfectionism from an extreme yet healthy drive, however, is the translation of achievement — and on the flip side, failure — into self-worth.

As a white, middle class, Jewish teenage girl, I often find myself so preoccupied with concerns that my work will not reflect my best possible effort, or that I’ll fail to distinguish my unique assets, that I cannot even begin. When or if I do, I am interrupted by self-talk riddled with criticism, doubt, and shame that it took me so long.

This derogatory mindset extends far beyond academics. If I’m not proving myself especially adept in a single aspect of my life, I feel that my other accomplishments are somehow diminished. If I mess up one paper, one conversation, one race, one interview, one attempt at flirting, one task on my to-do list, then I feel that I am incompetent and should probably quit altogether. If one other girl is prettier, skinnier, funnier, or more confident than me, I am automatically hideous and unlovable. This kind of exaggerated, binary thinking eliminates room for nuance, perspective, pleasure, and results in the need to constantly outshine everyone else simply to avoid being overlooked.

Privileged, white teenage girls — some of the most commonly-identified and discussed subjects of perfectionism — consistently experience pressure to prove ourselves worthy of respect. We inevitably fall into the role of representatives of our demographic while simultaneously competing with the rest of our patronized cohort, and are expected to smile while doing it. As a group that is largely mocked for nearly every characteristic, teenage girls often feel they must succeed wildly in every arena simply to be taken seriously. They don’t have the luxury of being able to display their own abilities, individuality, and humanly faults.

“Perfection” is an imaginary concept endorsed by current mainstream culture. As a manifestation of this collective belief in perfection, the media has created an image of perfection that is largely accepted as the expected norm. These arbitrary benchmarks of success are effectively unreachable for the majority of the population. Girls in particular face standardized guidelines for expected conduct in nearly all aspects of our lives should we wish to be accepted and respected in mainstream society. Our bodies, attitudes, diets, social lives, aspirations, speech, sexuality, and responsibilities, among other topics, are subject to clear societal expectations with equally clear social ramifications for disobedience. We risk being labeled abrasive, snarky, bitchy, bossy, controlling, emotionally unstable, snobby, crazy, slutty, and a host of other adjectives reserved for when we do not comply with the portrait of womanhood that society as a whole is comfortable with. We are faced with the well-intentioned message to be ourselves but simultaneously expected to adhere to a generalized, fairly rigid social construct of success.

Barae Hirsch grew up in Alaska in the cities of Anchorage and Homer. She is a recent graduate of West Anchorage High School, and is involved in journalism, environmental activism, civic engagement, and many forms of youth empowerment and advocacy. Barae loves hiking, writing, coffee, laughing, and getting fired up about social justice issues. You can find out more about her and see her work at baraehirsch.com

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