My high school was intense. In fact, I specifically remember filling in “intensive academic” under the program name column on the application form. This isn’t unique; plenty of people make it through challenging academic courses of study, and some navigate the terrain quite easily, exiting with few emotional scares. It was different for me. It wasn’t that the work was too difficult (though there was a lot of it) or that I had a challenging time fitting in. Rather, it was a small moment, that in hindsight, had a profound impact on me and the way I viewed myself for years.

As if going from a math classroom on the 6th floor to the basement-level locker room and being expected to be dressed and on your spot on the gym floor in what I recall being a span of 10-minutes wasn’t stressful enough, I had a math teacher with a reputation that preceded her. She was supposedly difficult, unfair, and all of those adjectives that tend to get tagged on to a feared high school teacher. I tried to keep it in perspective; I was relatively good at math, and assumed that the rumors were over-exaggerated.

All was going smoothly, with the exception of my terminal lateness to gym, until one morning after an exam. I can’t remember what it was on, but I do remember that I had been struggling with the material. I put a lot of effort into preparing, tried my hardest, and was now anxious about the results. I recall watching her weave her way up and down the rows and getting that prickly feeling in my hands as I awaited my grade (a result of test and test result anxiety that lasted through most of grad school). She placed the exam on the desk, face down, and lingered. I quickly turned it over and was elated when I saw that I got a 95. I was able to tackle challenging material and demonstrate my mastery of it. My effort had paid off, I was proud of myself, and started to relax. Then, she turned to me and said, “What happened? Why are you 5 points less than perfect? Why aren’t you perfect?” It was a quick off-handed comment, but there was absolutely no humor in her voice. What may have seemed insignificant to her, crushed me. All of my hard work, effort, and excitement was wiped away with three little, yet heavily loaded questions.

I don’t know if it was the combination of my impending harried commute down the six flights of stairs, the developmental stage that one is at during these formative high-school years, my temperament, or personality, but these questions stung. I had been reduced to a test grade; a grade which simply wasn’t good enough.

I’m not equating this experience to other major high school events that can affect people psychologically or physically. On the spectrum, this is relatively innocuous. However, it upset me then, and was often something that I had in the back of my head as I chased goals throughout my life; the feeling that my best wasn’t good enough and that only perfection was acceptable.

I bring this story up to illustrate a point; when we chase perfection, we use our shortcomings as benchmarks by which we judge our progress. This causes us to live for the future (or that next goal on the ladder), rather than appreciate and relish the present.

As humans, we have a pervasive drive to categorize events, seek patterns, and make sense of our surroundings. We also form attributions for the underlying causes of events, which essentially means that we like to make sense of why things (behaviors, events, etc.) occur. When doing this, negative occurrences tend to be more salient. For example, we will fixate on that one negative comment received as anonymous feedback or replay the lackluster greeting of that one friend in the group who seemed less than enthused to see us. This negativity bias can color our judgments and beliefs over time, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and sadness. Relating this to my previous story, I would be more likely to fixate on that one problem that I got wrong, rather than all of the problems I correctly answered. I would focus on the opportunities missed, rather than the goals achieved.

This can have a profound impact on our mental and emotional well-being. So, what can we do?

Realize that there is no such thing as perfection.

  • The term adaptation-level phenomenon, in which we quickly adapt to new situations, and establish a new norm comes to mind here. We judge situations in relation to what we have previously experienced.  For example, if you come into some money, you will find that you start to buy more expensive things (such as pricier clothes, meals, excursions, etc.). Soon, this will be the norm and is no longer something you value or view as unique. While it’s always great to improve and set goals for ourselves, be aware that sometimes meeting them won’t lead to the long-term emotional payoff that you were hoping for. It may be the case, that once you achieve your goal, it will become ordinary, and you may turn your focus to chasing the next big thing.

There is value in being self-aware.

  • By being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you become more in tune with yourself. This is helpful when problematic thoughts (such as the focus on the negative) arise. Being aware is the first step. The next is to cognitively restructure, or reframe these thoughts. Going back to the aforementioned example of the friend who didn’t give you the greeting you had hoped; rather than assume that it’s because she doesn’t like you, you can challenge this belief and reframe it. Realize that her reaction may have nothing to do with you, but rather is a result of something she is thinking about or experiencing. By being able to identify and name problematic thought patterns, you’re on your way to being able to challenge them, and thus remove the power they have over you.

Be present.

  • As we tend to anticipate the future in attempts to control it or move from one goal to the next, we often rob ourselves of the current moment. By being present, and focusing on your current accomplishments, you are better able to enjoy the process and appreciate the journey. Often people find that mindfulness techniques, such as focusing on our sensory experiences or on our breathing helps to keep us in the moment and centered. Being present can sometimes feel like a challenge.

Now, this essay is clearly not about the 95, but about the problems a person can face when striving for perfection (whether self-generated or encouraged by and/or demanded from others). Every now and then when I fail to achieve a goal or don’t get an outcome that I anticipated or hoped for, my mind jumps back to the problematic question, “Why aren’t you perfect?” However, I am now far better at realizing that perfection is an illusion, and that the outcomes I have achieved have been far more fulfilling when I am able to focus on them in the moment, rather than on jumping to the next goal.