Teen Talk

Striving for perfection doesn’t lead to happiness

Kelly Richardson
Kelly Richardson Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

DEAR KELLY: I’m starting to realize that I’m a total perfectionist. I used to always say I was just super organized, but I think it might be like a problem. I try on five outfits every morning, take forever to do my hair, freak out if my eyelashes stick together after putting on mascara, won’t leave the house if everything doesn’t look perfect. I had to drop out of my carpool because I was always late and would freak if they were waiting for me and I wasn’t ready. I would rather be late than not looking good or with bad hair.

I also hate it when someone touches my phone or picks at my food. Once someone touches food, I won’t eat it. And if someone touches my phone, I won’t touch it again until I wipe it down in case they got the screen dirty.

One of my friends recently told me that I was acting weird about things and it’s starting to bother her. She knows the things I freak out about, and I trusted her when I told her. It’s bothering me that she’s using it against me when she was so supportive in the beginning, and saying it’s weird, which I know it is but I don’t want to hear it from her.

I know it’s bad to be a perfectionist, but it’s also good because I have straight A’s, never get in trouble and always keep me room clean. Does that make me bad or wrong? Please help.


DEAR RILEY: Let’s start with this: You aren’t “bad” for being a perfectionist. You’re absolutely correct about the positives from your high-achieving skill set – you have good grades, keep a clean room and follow rules. Where the concern comes is the emotional price you pay for always expecting nothing short of perfection.

It’s not that you are bad or wrong, more like you are exhausted from all the worry and want to feel some relief from always being stressed or anxious from the standards you set for yourself. Living with the need to be perfect can rob you of life’s joys and pleasures. You become more focused on all that you are not instead of embracing all that makes you unique, different and wonderful.

Perfectionism has a strong connection to the fear of failure, and failing is not always a bad thing. When we fail, we learn about ourselves, our choices and the things that matter to us. Chasing perfectionism is a dangerous road to travel down, mainly because being perfect is unattainable and you don’t learn how to fail or grow from your failures. If you set our expectations on being perfect, you will lead a life of self-doubt, frustration, disappointment and shame.

Brené Brown, author of amazing books such as “Gifts of Imperfection” and “Daring Greatly” said, “Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence or healthy striving. … (It’s) a way of thinking and feeling that says this, ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, work perfect and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgment.’ ” Her books are must reads for you – very enlightening and liberating of the need to be perfect.

Don’t be angry with your friend for struggling to understand your need to be perfect. While I’m sure she tried to be supportive in the beginning, she’s probably concerned and doesn’t know how to help. You know things aren’t right, she just spoke up and it upset or embarrassed you. Perhaps her criticism was meant to be constructive and not as an attack. It’s great you trusted her and shared with her what was going on – being authentic and open about your struggles is the key to letting go of the façade that everything is great and wonderful.

Because the pressure to be perfect is an impossible goal, it can lead to anxiety, depression, guilt and social issues. Tell your parents that you need to speak with a professional counselor about what is going on so you can get help with how you are moving through life. Life shouldn’t be so much work or so stressful. The anxiety you feel is running your life and affecting many areas of your life. You have good things in your life to celebrate, but if all you focus on is what you did wrong, what you haven’t accomplished yet or what people will think of you if your mascara is not perfect, you will never have peace with who you are or settle into being good within yourself.

Talking with a professional can help you develop the ability to stop the negative self-talk, develop a healthy self-image and learn to accept and embrace yourself – flaws and all. It can also help with the day-to-day interactions you have with people so they are positive and easy, not stressful and upsetting. You can learn healthy behaviors that encourage and motivate you, not by fear but by self-love. A professional counselor can help you develop new habits that will allow you to stop living for the approval of others and start living for the happiness of yourself.