Let’s Talk (About Perfectionism): Is The Best Yet To Be?

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This was written in collaboration with EJC Press as part of Issue 3 of Cross Island Impressions, an inter-JC Press collaboration. You can read Issue 3 here.

By Mei Feifei (22A13A; RI), Nigel Ng (21-A3; EJC), and Zuo Yuning (21-A1; EJC)

“I strived for perfection but what has that left me with? Crippling depression!” 

Such was an anonymous Rafflesian’s damning indictment of perfectionism. A quick survey of 106 students from RI and EJC told us that the different manifestations of perfectionism (as listed in the figure below) are not unfamiliar to students; if anything, most of us, at some point in our lives, have been a perfectionist in one way or another. 

Oh, to be those two special souls who’ve never ever felt a perfectionist’s pain!

Perfectionism comes in many shapes and forms, but it is commonly framed as a challenge for both students and educators. Psychologists and productivity experts define perfectionism as an endless pursuit of the illusory notion of perfection, and some even call it the process of running away from your inner critic. Nevertheless, despite this ever so negative professional portrayal of perfectionism, our survey found that more than 50% of students think positively of perfectionism. Chen Ding (21-U2; EJC) remarked that “It’s always good to seek perfection but it’s hard to achieve most of the time.”

Forms response chart. Question title: On a scale of 1 to 4, what is your opinion of perfectionism?. Number of responses: 106 responses.
More respondents hold a favourable view towards perfectionism.

However, when shown the quote, “perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis”, a majority of respondents agreed with this statement. As Charlestion Leong (21-A4; EJC) mentioned, “I think it’s [kind of] scary when you think about it—the irrational need to do something so perfectly is disturbing and its ability to basically incapacitate our ability to do work subconsciously is scary.”

Forms response chart. Question title: "Perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis." To what extent do you agree with this quote?. Number of responses: 106 responses.
Though there were more respondents on the “fax only no printer” end of the spectrum here.

It is important to note that the survey findings are not contradictory in nature. They merely show the view that while perfectionism can be good under certain limited circumstances, perfectionism can also hamper success when it becomes neurotic or maladaptive. 

To quote the words of Remus Ong (21S03L; RI), perfectionism can “bring about excellence and success by raising our expectations and pushing us to reach greater heights.” However, he also noted that “if the desire for perfectionism reaches an unhealthy level, things will start to go down-hill.” Being too anxious about doing something perfectly can hinder us from seeing the good in our work, “to the point where we [blame ourselves for] minor mistakes, such as not getting every question in our tutorials right.” This sentiment is partly reflected by Qianwen (21-A1; EJC), who shared that “anything [that] falls short of my standard of perfection would make me feel very depressed as I will start to reconsider … my self-worth and the purpose [of doing the task in the first place].” 

Teachers also feel that perfectionistic mindsets may harm their students more than they help. Mr Kevin Wong, the Deputy Head of EJ Press, maintains that perfectionism “harms, definitely, because it encourages [students] to discount their own effort and value psycho-emotionally and reach for the unreasonable and unattainable levels of excellence.”

Perfectionism’s toxic effects should not be trivialised. The doomed chase after perfection will, sooner or later, end up to be self-defeating: it is surely a cause for alarm when you find that this worrying phenomenon of unceasing self-criticism is like Dolby Atmos—all around you

One of RI’s resident counsellors, Ms Woo Mei Hui, explains that perfectionists are not uncommon in many Singaporean schools. The Singaporean education system counts precious little as merit, yet this narrow definition of merit is quantified in so many ways (PSLE T-score, grade point average, L1R5, LEAPS points … the list goes on). These measurements help to pool together students who have demonstrated academic excellence or some form of success. Those who were once the ‘PSLE top-scorers’ of their primary schools may now find themselves no longer “at the top”, or to borrow the familiar metaphor, they may find themselves turning from a big fish in a small pond” to a “small fish in a big pond. 

Yet, this shift in the basis of comparison has not led to a corresponding adjustment in terms of personal expectations. Like the koi fish jumping the dragon gate, the further upstream we travel, the bigger the fish that surround us, yet we are all competing to see who can jump the highest relative to this one golden gate. It is hence only natural for perfectionists, who believe that “self-worth equals ability which equals performance”, to experience disappointment and even depression due to the constant struggle to outperform others in these limited, rigid areas of success boxed up by our society. 

Beyond perfectionism’s impacts on one’s mental well-being, scientific literature has also found a relationship between perfectionism and underachievement. Adderholt-Elliott (1989) outlines five ways in which perfectionism can lead to underachievement: procrastination; fear of failure; the all-or-nothing mindset; paralysed perfectionism; and workaholism. 

The mention of the word “procrastination” is sure to invoke some sheepish chuckles amongst students. Chionging, or rushing some project or other a few nights before the deadline seems to be the one student experience that is truly universal. While some may attempt to justify this by saying that they are more productive under pressure, for perfectionists, leaving the task till the very last second frees them from the agony of having to deal with an imperfect product in its early stages. This irrational intolerance of imperfection also feeds a fear of failure—when a perfectionist knows that they cannot meet their own expectations all the time, they choose to stay within their comfortable small ponds and refuse to venture into the larger ponds where they can truly grow. This is evidence of black-and-white, or all-or-nothing thinking: to perfectionists, there is no in-between. Anything short of their expectations is an unacceptable failure. Either that, or they choose to overcompensate by putting in 110% of their efforts, draining their time and energy. 

The most extreme perfectionist is the paralysed perfectionist. A perfectionist who feels that even their best attempt will end up as failure might be deterred by the overwhelming fear and unable to try new things, even when this ‘failure’ is merely being ‘imperfect’. Thoughts like “I’m not trying out for that because I won’t get in”, “I can’t really grow an interest in music because I only just started and I’m terrible at it”, “I didn’t finish the project because I just couldn’t get it to work out” are all instances of paralysis. 

Our media’s portrayal of success and individuals who succeed further ensnare perfectionists in the tragic paralysis. Stories of successful people hardly touch on “the oceans of tears and despair that necessarily surround them” because they often focus on “a daily curated selection of peak career moments” and make success seem like “a norm and baseline of achievement”. Likewise, when we look around at our peers, we are only seeing them at the endpoint with no picture of what their journey looked like. That guy who’s either sleeping in class or gaming on his phone has half the Western canon at his fingertips, not because he was born with it, but because of his love of reading cultivated since childhood; the same girl who’s constantly infatuated with a different Korean dude each month and comes in first in class for every math test is not built different, but rather pores over Olympiad question sets in her free time. On their uphill journey towards the countless successes that we see today, there is also a correspondingly countless number of stumbles and tears that they have pushed through. Failure is not just inevitable; it is necessary. As The School of Life so aptly puts it, 

“We need to … allow ourselves to do things quite imperfectly for a very long time—as a price we cannot avoid paying for an opportunity one day, in many decades, to do something that others will consider a spontaneous success.”

How, then, may we get our koi fish to be less jumpy?

Ms Woo emphasises the importance of doing a reality check. “When we are in our negative downward spiral, we’re just … trapped in an echo chamber together with all our reverberating negative thoughts … [which will] magnify all our negatives [and] minimise our positives. We won’t remember our past experiences of [success], we’ll criticise ourselves [and] be our harshest critics.” At times like this, it is important to look outside of ourselves to challenge these negative thoughts. One possible way to do this is to ask a friend for help—“I have these negative thoughts, tell me if they’re true. Are they evidence-based? Can you remind me of all the facts to the contrary?” 

In turn, Mr Wong suggests a few possible ways in which friends can help. For example, they can “remind [their friends] of times in the past when they have succeeded against unfamiliar or novel things”, help them “recognise the amount of effort that they … have already been putting into whatever it is that is in front of them, and to draw strength and worth from that.” 

For those who are less willing to ask for external help, grounding exercises and journaling can also be helpful. By focusing on the present, “we can escape the ruminations [and] the focus on the past and the future, which is where depression and anxiety reside,” Ms Woo advises. 

Reading books based on cognitive behavioural therapy is another way to conduct a reality check. The most important thing, Ms Woo stresses, is “getting out of that echo chamber” and “getting a different perspective, bearing in mind that [they have] to be good quality, self-help sources and not just evidence-based stuff.”

Ms Woo’s recommended reads!

Ultimately, as one respondent so wisely said, “perfection is a fool’s errand, and lies on the path of insanity :D”. Perfectionism may spur one to perform to the best of their abilities, but the very pursuit of this unattainable standard of perfection is much like Sisyphus and his rock: a never-ending cycle of toil and struggle only for all of it to end up being futile. 

Top-down changes have already been implemented in efforts to transform the ways in which we see our worth. For example, news sites have long since stopped (officially) publishing the top PSLE scorers of each batch, and RI’s Dean’s List is now a thing of the past. Nevertheless, these mindset and cultural shifts will take time to set in, so in the meantime, let us help ourselves by letting Sisyphus let go of his rock. 

After all, even when the koi fish finally leaps over the golden gate and transforms into a dragon, it could never have gained the strength to leap so high without braving the countercurrents on its way there. As we strive to leap over our own proverbial golden gates, we must keep in mind that the struggle upstream is the most indispensable part of the journey. 

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