Why None of Us Should Be Perfectionists

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Why None of Us Should Be Perfect by Ada Perlman - Photo by Ruby Stillman

Every teenage girl thinks she has to be perfect. The only problem? It is making us sick. Although it cannot be diagnosed, perfectionism is a mental health issue: an impossible notion that every girl puts in her mind. She wants to get straight A’s in every subject, she wants to be at the top of her class, and to get into her dream school. While it is great to be ambitious, we need to recognize when we are being unreasonable about our aspirations or comparing ourselves to others.

I have struggled a lot with this idea of perfectionism. Before starting at my all-girls school for high school, I went to a co-ed school with a graduating eighth grade class of 19 students. While I did consider myself a perfectionist there, I did not beat myself up if I was not the best. When I began high school, I started feeling if I was not the best, there was no point in even trying at all. My classes were bigger, and they only consisted of girls. This created a bigger sense of competition—and one that was more intense. Because we were all the same gender, we were all competing for the “female position” by trying to be the best female in the room. This competition pitted us against each other instead of improving ourselves. We all wanted to be the best female we could be. We were all hard workers, and this is where I started to ramp up my perfectionist self.

In silly games like Kahoot!, I would get competitive because I couldn’t bear not placing first. I would work hard and eventually, I got bored. Why was I so focused on being perfect? I knew it was impossible, so why did I keep working at it? In a recent New York Times article, the psychologist Lisa Damour quotes journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. They say that “women feel confident only when they are perfect.” I feel that this particularly applies to teenage girls. While men only work just enough, women feel that they need to do more than the maximum to be the best. Women work hard trying to be perfect, when good enough is all that is necessary. This leads to major mental health issues that in fact ruin our work habits and hold us back from getting jobs that men take.

I have noticed these issues since the beginning of high school. I have noticed a lot of girls crying, girls saying they want to die, and girls being overstressed about getting a 90 on a test instead of a 95. These issues are all new to me, and they have upset me a lot. Sometimes I feel like I cannot do anything but support my friends and tell them that everything will be okay. I cannot be a therapist for my friends or convince them to stop studying until two in the morning when their sleep is more valuable and will contribute to a longer life. Although I cannot control how my friends behave, I realize that as young women we need to stop this idea of perfectionism. We need to create a new generation of women who do not value “inefficient overwork,” as Damour calls it, but success in school and office life.

We need to stop telling ourselves to be perfect, but instead, tell ourselves that we can only be ourselves. We cannot be our friends or our siblings, but only ourselves. If I have learned anything since coming to an all-girls environment this year, it is that perfectionism is a harmful concept, not something that makes you “smarter.” By doing more than you have to, you are creating inefficient study habits. We should do what we need to be successful instead of comparing ourselves or making ourselves work harder for something that is honestly not extremely important. I think my school definitely struggles with mental health issues in its own student body, and we need to address that a lot of these issues root from perfectionism. If our teachers or our friends notice that we are overworking ourselves, they should not praise this, but condemn it. Overcoming perfectionism starts with our own schools. We can raise the most successful generation of un-perfect women, if we only recognize our flaws.

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Ada Perlman
Ada Perlman is a sophomore at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She loves musical theater and is involved with many productions each year. Some of her passions include singing, writing, running, and reading. Ada's work has been published in Fresh Ink for Teens, The Jewish Week, JGirls Magazine, her school newspaper; The Ellisian Times and Large Print; a selective teen journal run out of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Accompanying photo: “Homecoming” by Ruby Stillman