The Tragedy of the Perfectionist

“What did you do in school today?” is the question that I heard every day, approximatively 170 days per year, for twelve years. This means I heard this question at least 2040 times in my life.

If I hadn’t gotten any grades that day, I’d just get away with “nothing special” or, if I was in the mood for talking, I’d just chat away about random things that had happened. If I had had any papers due and had received some grades and if at least one of them was less than an “A”, the first question was almost invariably followed by the second one: “What did Aurora get?”. Almost every time Aurora had got a better grade than I. Sometimes a little better, other times a lot better. If I had gotten a hard won “B” on a really tough subject, she would have gotten a perfect “A”. I count by the fingers of my hand the glorious and euphoric times when, by some miracle, I managed to get an “A” in English and Aurora had a really bad day and would get a “B”. On those days, that were like rare diamonds, I’d get home and not wait for the second question. I’d not wait for the first one either. I’d just come in and shout from the door: “Today I got an “A” and Aurora got a “B”!”

Those were the days when I felt better, more important, more competent and in which the future seemed brighter than on any other day. On those days I could be sure that nobody would tell me how I needed to “work hard”, “perform”, “persevere”, “be the best because life is a struggle” or “not settle for mediocrity”. On those days of temporary glory, my cup of self-esteem was full. Aurora was like my personal Everest. If I managed to conquer her even for a day, I felt on the top of the world. Unfortunately, the next day I’d wake up back at the foot of the mountain with no guarantees that I would ever again make it to the top. And, as the years went by, this Everest grew ever taller and more difficult to climb.

In my home country (Romania), kids start going to local and national competitions in different subjects around sixth grade. There are competitions in math, physics, chemistry, English - or anything else you can imagine. For perfectionistic and highly competitive kids like I used to be, these competitions are just another battleground. I was 12 years old - when Aurora and I went to our first regional physics competition, with kids from many other schools. She got a top prize. I got a “special mention” and felt proud of it - at least I hadn’t embarrassed myself. The following year there was no point in competing, as she had taken physics seriously and won a place in the national competition and I convinced myself that I liked math better, simply because Aurora didn’t have time for that competition too.

Our math teacher, who found himself abandoned by his favourite student, had to settle for me as a second option and put all his hopes in my potential to get a prize in the math “Nationals” - a competition that lasted a week or so and brought together the brightest kids in the country. He convinced himself (and my parents) that, if I would work hard enough, I’d accomplish great things that would be the glory of our school and home town. I struggled, for some years afterwards, never being quite good enough to get past the regional competition. When I finally qualified for the long sought after “nationals” I didn’t manage to get any prize at that level. Still, I enjoyed spending a week with kids from all over the country, many of them smarter than myself and all of them definitely more passionate about math than I was. Those were the kind of kids who’d solve math problems for fun, while I would have happily thrown out all the math quizzes in the world in exchange for a good book that I could read by the flashlight, snuggled under the covers, long after bed time. All the while, Aurora had won the Nationals and qualified in the International Physics Olympics, with kids from all over the world and on the road to being admitted at a prestigious university abroad. And while all of these things were happening, we were struggling to get straight A's in all other subjects in school day in and day out. Actually, I was struggling. She just seemed to be perfect. All the time. And I was always missing a few points to get to perfection.

We got to eleventh grade, on the first day of school, and I realised that I felt physically sick in math class. That was the first time I accepted that maybe that Everest was not for me. The first time I ever realised that different people might have different mountains to climb in this life and that, yes, by all academic standards, Aurora was and would always be better than me. And that didn’t make me less human.

Perhaps it helped that I had joined a philosophy group, where we would meet once a week in school - no pressure, no grades - and we’d discuss fascinating topics. We were challenged to think about life, meaning, ethics - in an environment where being perfectionistic and competitive didn’t serve you well, as the only way to learn was by mindfully listening to others. Maybe it mattered that I had fallen in love with my first great love and suddenly I was realising that I was becoming a woman and that there were other beautiful things in life besides school. Maybe it mattered that I was reading Freud and Jung and becoming more and more aware of the universe inside my mind that I knew so little about, but was curious to discover. Maybe it mattered that I had been practicing introspection - I had started a personal journal because I wanted to have a record of my life - with all its ups and downs. I would write in it daily because I was conscious of growing up, of losing contact with childhood and I was terrified that I would become an adult and forget what it’s like to feel small, unsure of yourself, misunderstood. I was afraid that someday I would become a parent and I would be blind and deaf, just like the adults in my life seemed at the time. I wanted, at all cost, to keep a connection to my past self, at least in the pages of some notebook I would hide beneath fake book covers in my library, for fear my parents might discover it and be shocked at how harshly I was judging them and how lonely I was really feeling.

I came home one day after the new school year had started for a week or so and told my parents that I wanted to move to another class in our high-school, where the curriculum was focused on humanistic studies. In that class - all girls and just two boys - everyone always seemed relaxed, unlike in my “special math” class, where everyone was perpetually stressed, chasing some unattainable standards. I wanted to go to this class where I wasn’t required to take math (except for some really basic stuff) and, most importantly, where there was no Aurora. To my surprise and to their eternal merit, my parents said YES without any other questions. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, they too were transforming. You weren’t normally allowed to switch classes after school year had started, but my father went to the principal and fought for me. He had to fight the math teacher too, who felt my decision was nothing short of betrayal. But when dad set his mind to something, there was nothing stopping him. And the following week I started my life in my new humanistic class and I felt, after many years, that I was finally able to breathe.

I spent my last two years of high-school learning, slowly, that I had value as a human being, beyond my academic grades. I still excelled academically with much less effort or pressure, but the high grades didn’t matter to me as much. It was much more enjoyable to focus on studying foreign languages, psychology or philosophy than it had been to study math. In my last year I got, for the first time, straight As throughout the whole year. It was still Aurora who was the Valedictorian because, not even after I growing wings on my feet, was I able to run faster than her. But, for the first time, I didn’t feel hurt that she had outperformed me. Something had started to shift in me, like a sort of inner growth. In those two years without competition, comparisons, pressure, without that infamous “second question” each day - a new belief had taken root inside of me. The belief that I was a good and valuable person in my own way, just like others were good and valuable in their own way and that I didn’t always need to compare myself to others just to prove that I was worthy.

I was eighteen at the time and since then it’s been another eighteen years. The healing process of the perfectionist, straight A student in me was long and not straightforward. Countless times I found myself caught up in cycles of competition with myself, I compared myself with others that I perceived as better, more competent, more successful than I. I fell in love with the brightest, most popular boy at my university, only to see him taken away by a terrible disease and to learn what a broken heart really felt like. I set a target of accomplishments by the time I would be 30 and accomplished it at 28, only to realise that I wasn’t any happier. I built a house that I never really enjoyed, only to discover that the genuine feeling of “home” isn’t tied to any property, but to the meaningful people you share that home with. I went through a failed marriage, just to learn that family isn’t a box you can tick on your CV. I had some high paying jobs and discovered what it’s like to feel physically sick having to go to work to a place that didn’t fuel my passions or need for meaning, but which did deliver a really cool job title on my business card and money to pay the mortgage on that house I had thought I needed. I gave up everything I had built, only to realise that I could still exist, even without all my accomplishments and success.

I went to therapy, I kept on writing in my journal, that now stretches over 8 large notebooks and half a life. I accepted that I would never be perfect, but I can still build a meaningful life where my imperfections are gifts to be used, not burdens to be ashamed of. When I felt I was whole enough so that I didn’t need anybody to come fill my inner emptiness, I found another person, also imperfect, broken and mended, just like myself - and together we brought into the world a wonderful child - like they all are. She reminds us every day that we still have room to grow into wisdom and, because we now know there is no such thing as perfect parent, we try to at least be as awake and conscious as we possibly can.

I learnt coaching and started to accompany others, also imperfect, on the road to making peace with themselves. I created a coaching school which, over the past four years, has welcomed almost one hundred people and placed a mirror in front of them. These people, smart, successful and ambitious, found themselves in a learning group and immediately started comparing with others who seemed to “learn faster”/”do better”/”know more”/”ask smarter questions”/”are more talented coaches” than themselves. They have the opportunity to watch themselves expecting to get it right on the first try and feeling anger, guilt or shame when, inevitably, they fail. They discover that what sabotages them most on the road to becoming good coaches are their very own unattainable standards, the pressure they put on themselves, their need to control, to demonstrate, to be the best. They are people who, like most of us, fight the demon of “I’m not good enough” and who realise, in their 30s, 40s or 50s that to err is actually a gift, not failure, as it’s the only way to really learn something.

I have heard over the years countless life stories of other perfectionists who, like myself, have fought years and years for the next “good grade” to fill that inner void. They fought until life thrashed them and they found themselves hitting rock bottom only to discover that nothing and nobody can ever fill the void. Then they rose from the bottom and started, with smaller or bigger steps, sometimes two forward and one backward, finding their way back into the light, learning on the way that they can feel beautiful, good and valuable just because they exist, not because they know/can/do.

I discovered that almost every person that I work with is hiding, one way or another, a version of the “drama of the perfectionist”. Almost all of us have had some “Aurora” in our past. Maybe we were being compared to our brothers or sisters or with some neighbour or friend and always found lacking. Maybe we were expected to always be flawless and any mistake was considered weakness and reason for blame. Maybe we were just afraid to not disappoint the people whom we loved most, so we ended up burying ourselves under a mountain of expectations, losing contact to our souls in the process. Whatever brought us there, we’re in a race, looking for ourselves in our personal or professional success, telling ourselves that life is a battle and we have to fight. We don’t realise that the one we are fighting is none other than our very self.

Often times, in our quest for perfection, we become blinded to our own suffering and end up passing it on to our children. We place our high standards on them, push them to succeed, criticise, pressure, compare them - all with the noble intention of making them “better”, “preparing them” for life. In this process, we end up estranging them from themselves, breaking their inner compass of self-esteem and damaging that inner core of self-esteem that would give them the balance and wisdom to know they are unconditionally worthy, regardless of anything or anyone outside of them. By pushing them to seek perfection in preparation for (what we believe) might be a successful life, we might actually end up preparing them for a life in which, whatever they do, it will never be enough. We prepare them for “never smart enough, beautiful enough, successful enough” and for a pointless quest for external validation of their worth as human beings.

In every one of us there is a child who is waiting to hear something else than: “what did you do in school today?”. A child who just wants to play, be free, not do what “one must”. A child who is unique and doesn’t need to be compared to anybody else, who is also unique. A child who needs to hear: “You are enough. It is enough. You don’t need to do anything, tick any box, demonstrate anything.”. A child who is longing for us to reach out, embrace them and say: “I love you just the way you are”.

The road to that inner child is a long and arduous one for most of us. However, what I have learnt from my own journey and the journey of others whom I have had the privilege to stand by is that this inner child never loses patience with us, never loses hope nor faith that one day, some day, we will remember him and see him for what he really is - a being that is imperfect, whole and worthy of unconditional love. Regardless of how long it takes us to get there, he will be always patiently waiting for us, ready to say: “I’m glad you finally SEE me. I have always been here”.

Later update: After I published this text in Romanian a few days ago, Aurora wrote in a public comment her own lessons. With her permission, I add her thoughts here, as a post-scriptum to this story and, hopefully, food for thought for us all.

“In the meantime, Aurora from this story was also running to catch up with Catalin - the boy who always got first prize in the National physics contest, while she, Aurora, always got second place. Catalin committed suicide in his grandmother’s country house in 2004. It was then that realisation struck me like a train. The closer you are to the top of the Everest, the more dangerous it gets. The less you can afford to make mistakes. The lonelier you are. When I was at the university, I slept 2-3 hours per night just to keep up my straight A record. But every time I tried to complain to a friend, I always got the same reply: “If YOU are complaining it’s hard, imagine what it’s like for ME!”.

It’s very easy, when you’re chasing after someone, to think they have it easier. That they are ahead without an effort, that they just have a natural talent. I admit, my natural talent turned out to be math and physics - but this only meant, in the end, just another chapter in the tragedy of the perfectionistic, straight A student. As her parents were asking Alis what grade did Aurora get, Aurora’s parents were asking her what grade did Alis get and, on top of that, what prize did Catalin get.

And, between the lines, I woke up at thirty longing to give up my job, my marriage, to just run away on another continent and start over. I was hoping to test, empirically, who loved me for how “perfect” I was and who was there for me unconditionally. It’s sad that I really didn’t know, at that time, the answer to that question. When I moved to Japan, for a few years I lied about my real profession. I would tell the new people I’d meet that I was a photographer or data analyst, instead of the truth - that I was an astrophysicist working for the Japanese space agency. Paradoxically, this lie helped me to find myself again because my new friends, I was certain, appreciated the real Aurora, not the “perfect”, straight A one.

Photo credits: Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash