How I stopped punishing myself for imperfection and embraced being human

“Perfectionism is internalized oppression.”

Gloria Steinem

I was taught to strive for perfection early on in my life. In second grade, I got 97 out of 100 on one exam, and my teacher asked me: “how come you lost the 3 points?” I was encouraged to study as hard as I can to get 100 percent on all my assignments, quizzes, and exams so that I can get into a good college. In China, for most students, your chance of getting into a good college is determined by one college entrance exam – Gao Kao. The pressure to be perfect on exams is enormous. I, like many Chinese students, spent thousands of hours solving math problems, working on exams, analyzing past mistakes, and vowing never to repeat them again.

Years of training in school molded my mindset into believing that being perfect is not only possible but the way of life. There are no other paths. My fear of failure became intolerance for any mistakes and self-hatred when I inevitably make mistakes. 

I came to the US for graduate school. I was paralyzed by anxiety when I was writing a proposal for my doctoral dissertation. I would sit all day in a library watching TV, dreading the work I needed to do, and going home knowing that I accomplished nothing that day.  

Days passed. I feel worse every day. A week passed. I kicked myself for taking so long. The longer I procrastinated, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more I blamed myself, and the more paralyzed I became. In the end, one month passed and nothing was done. I was filled with shame and dread. I could not accept the fact that I wasted so much time yet did not accomplish anything. I had to punish myself for it. I did not take breaks. I did not eat well. I did not play or socialize. But I wrote nothing. I did not even open the word file. 

I met with my adviser and let him know that I was struggling to finish. He did not blame me at all. He kindly encouraged me and said: “hey, you can still get it done.” I did get it done eventually, with a great amount of pain, resistance, and procrastination. I could not forgive myself for wasting months of time on it and dragging it out. Why can’t I just do it, you know, perfectly, with zero procrastination? 

I started seeing a therapist and taking medication since then. That has helped me to understand my perfectionism. 

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” – Michael Law

One of my therapists said: “a perfectionist is just someone who is really scared.” I realized perfectionism is not about striving for excellence, but rather about fear. It is a way to control your environment and avoid bad outcomes. It is a desperate attempt to defend yourself against any possible attack, by forcing yourself to become a robot. If I am simply perfect, I can avoid getting scolded by my parents or teachers. I used to be proud of my perfectionism, but now I empathize with how hard I had to work as a child to be safe.  

I still fell into the same cycle over and over again in my life. Fear leads to paralysis and procrastination, which leads to beating myself up for it, and therefore more pain and exhaustion. 

After many sessions with several therapists, and many, many struggles, I realized one thing:

I spent more energy punishing myself, rather than helping myself. 

I have been focusing so much on being perfect and punishing myself when I deviate from it in any shape or form. 

I would say mean things to myself when I make a wrong turn and end up spending 5 more minutes on the road. 

I would kick myself when I bought something “unnecessary” and “wasted” 10 bucks. 

I would ruminate on things I said and done and how to “optimize” things to the fullest all the time. 

I would beat myself so hard for procrastinating in any shape or form. 

I must get the best deal, take the shortest route, not waste a cent, be the best one at work, publish the most groundbreaking research,  never say the wrong thing with friends, etc. 

The lie I have believed for so long is: I must punish myself for making mistakes or being anything short of “perfect”. The punishment is good and necessary. 

The lie caused me to slip into deeper depression and cannot get out. 

The past is in the past. There is no use in beating myself up. It is not efficient. It is not necessary.  It is a type of cruelty I was used to experiencing growing up.The past does not dictate my future. 

When I stopped believing in this lie, life became so much easier and more enjoyable. 

Now when I procrastinate or make a mistake, instead of believing the criticism spewed by my brain, I allow myself to accept it. 

Instead of focusing on how badly I screwed up, I ask myself: How can I get this done? How can I move forward? 

I start to embrace the fact that I am never going to be perfect. I accept with kindness that I will screw up and fall short. That does not mean I am not worthy. It just means I am human.

I have been too scared to be flawed and to be myself because I was afraid of the punishment that comes with imperfection. The imperfection that I try to drive out is exactly what makes me who I am. 

I get anxious easily. I am jumpy sometimes. I put off chores for as long as humanly possible. When I look at myself from the lens of a loving parent or friend, all the flaws seem endearing and adorable. I have more peace within me. The kind voice in my head starts to grow stronger. When I feel accepted and safe by myself, I do not need to be perfect anymore. 

Are you punishing yourself for not being perfect? Do you believe in the same lie that imperfection must be punished? Please stop. 

You deserve your own love, just as you are, no matter what you have or have not done. 

Author Information: Zoey is a social scientist, teacher, and fellow human being. She is one of the founders of the podcast Mind Cheerleaders (in Mandarin, 心灵啦啦队) to promote and normalize conversations on mental health and personal growth within the Chinese community. She loves animals, nature, meditation, and comedy shows. You can get in touch with her via Instagram (@ mindcheerleader). 

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