In high school, my art teacher gave my class the assignment of copying a masterwork. I chose one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, a still life of vibrant sunflowers. I mapped out squares, dividing my canvas into a grid and sketching his shapes to scale. I mixed colors repeatedly until my palette matched van Gogh’s hues of gold and dusty blue. Then, daubing globs of paint onto the canvas, I tried to mimic the size and texture of his brushstrokes one square at a time.
Sounds meticulous for a school art project, right? After all, it’s said that van Gogh painted wildly, working moment by moment, fighting to capture fleeting light. But I couldn’t relate to any sense of artistic madness; instead my process was marked by a desire for things to be exact.
For years, I’ve struggled with my desire to overachieve or obsess over things. “If only I can make this project close to perfect, then I’ll be admired,” I’ve often thought. At other times, out of fear that my work would not be up to par, I wouldn’t even pick up the paintbrush.
For years, my worth rested on my aptitudes, good grades, and garnering praise. On the surface, I seemed calm and collected, but on the inside, my thoughts spewed out self-criticism. Majoring in English, I wrote papers weekly. Each time my graded essays were returned to me, I recoiled at even slight criticism. Rather than accepting criticism as constructive, I took it personally.
My brand of perfectionism meant nitpicking over tiny details, pulling all-nighters on projects, and even crying tears of frustration because nothing ever seemed right. But as I struggled to move from task to task, day to day, holding myself to an unnecessarily high standard, I began to wonder: Were my overly critical ways worth it? Would pushing toward perfection (more like pushing myself to the brink) ever leave me satisfied?
It was in the midst of these internal questions that I happened to be reading the book Interior Freedom by Fr. Jacques Philippe. “But identity is not rooted in the sum of one’s aptitudes. Individuals have a unique value and dignity, independently of what they can do,” it read. Like a bolt of clarity, these words woke me up. Lingering over that page, I remembered hours spent honing projects, hoping to prove my worth. I had believed my abilities and future career would carve out my identity. Instead, these two sentences suggested that my identity meant more than “English major,” “writer,” or “amateur graphic designer,” roles that I thought would define me. In this moment, my perspective shifted. I finally understood that a person’s worth isn’t earned but innate.
How many of us confuse our self-worth with what we can do or show for? There are many ways to define perfectionist behavior, but according to researchers, it involves one or many of the following traits: “the tendency to set very high standards and to place importance on the achievement of those standards for self-evaluation”; “the tendency to react negatively to mistakes . . . as meaning failure”; “the subjective perception that one is not meeting one’s goals or standards or that one’s actual self is lacking as compared to one’s ideal self,” among other definitions.
Instead of perfection, I—and, really, everyone—should look to purpose. Purpose acknowledges the greater good; it directs my efforts toward an end outside of myself. For me, purpose means being rooted in my faith and living with compassion (which includes learning to extend it to myself). Purpose has also meant embracing my sense of vocation or calling to something. Your sense of purpose may look totally different than mine, but to be driven by a vision (something beyond yourself) helps keep things in perspective.
Perfection—whether that means the perfect piece of writing, the perfect relationship, the perfect body, or the perfect résumé—will always be an evasive ideal. When we place too much promise in our talents, we find it ever more difficult to forgive our flaws. As Philippe writes, “Failures are unendurable because instead of being seen as normal, even beneficial, they are perceived as an attack on our being.” Rather than nurturing my self-worth, my perfectionist tendencies stunted it. What good is taking myself so seriously that I leave no room for stumbling?
Accepting our imperfection lifts the pressure from our shoulders and the weight from hearts heavy with self-criticism. We’re incapable of true perfection. It took me a while to realize this, but when I did, I felt a sense of freedom. As paradoxical as it sounds, knowing our own limitations can be liberating.
I have yet to let go of my perfectionist ways for good. You could say I’m recovering. But I’m learning to shake off mistakes and self-criticism. When my roommate caught me polishing my online portfolio months after I (supposedly) finished it, she couldn’t help but laugh. Her good humor reminded me that I could laugh at myself, too.
But whenever I am tempted to be unsure of my self-worth apart from my abilities, I try to think of those who really love me and why. Try it. It’s not because of career accomplishments or artistic skills, though these may add to our charm. We give and receive love for unspoken reasons—quirks, flaws, foibles, and all. If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of others.
For me, overcoming perfectionism has been a slow but steady journey. Instead of dismissing accomplishments, I embrace imperfections. Rather than lowering my aspirations, I understand my limitations and work better within them. And I nurture seeds of purpose, knowing how my small efforts fit in the grander scheme of things.
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together,” van Gogh once wrote. As it turns out, van Gogh was quite the perfectionist himself. According to popular lore, he only sold one painting in his lifetime. He could have forgone painting out of frustration or despair. And yet, he had drive. He cranked out masterpieces. His work went undervalued, but he created and created again. He painted with purpose.
With grace and grit, we can rise above some idea of perfection and share something all our own. There’s nothing wrong with creating a life that looks good or feels good, but more rewarding still would be to create a life that decidedly is good. Make something you’re proud of, or better yet, be someone you’re proud of. Pursue purpose. Just know, neither failure nor success defines our value as a person. Your aptitudes cannot reflect all of your glimmering facets.
Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography