A Perfect Life: At What Cost?

With such intense pressure to succeed in today’s society, it can be easy to lose sight of one’s limits, which leads to pain if the downsides of the perfectionist mentality are not addressed.


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When one’s world seems defined by academic achievement, life can easily become stressful.

Welcome to High School: Your Daily Funhouse Mirror Visit! Of course, one does not usually associate rigorous education with carnival-like activities, but self-image can be deeply compromised when one cannot distinguish between perfection and reality. 

Holding such high standards can dangerously distort the lens through which one perceives experiences, accomplishments, and emotion. 

Perfection and utter failure may seem like the only possibilities when seeking triumphs in highly competitive environments. This high level of expectation can be demonstrated by a member of the class of ’22 who said, “I suppose everyone needs to sacrifice a little bit of sanity for results.” However, science has proven otherwise; this so-called “ambition” causes more struggle than assistance.

At Bronx Science, a student survey that I conducted of thirty-four found that in the 2021-2022 school year, the majority of respondents receive a maximum of five to six hours of sleep a night, despite top researchers insisting that a minimum of eight hours is required for full functionality, as well as brain development. In certain cases, daily homework can take more than six hours, thereby consuming more hours of students’ time than sleep.

This focus on maintaining high standards is only reinforced by heavy workloads and the ever-looming presence of college applications, as emphasized from as early as one’s ninth grade year. Our society quantifies success through grades, statistics, and percentiles. As such, it is no surprise that students nationwide frequently exhibit perfectionist tendencies and suffer the ever-common malady of burnout. Perfectionism can manifest in any area of our lives, including school, work, intimate relationships, friendships, writing quality, appearance, and in the development of eating disorders.

Often caused by the worry of being deemed deficient or of feeling disliked, perfectionism can result in a variety of dilemmas, including decision paralysis, guilt, loss of opportunities, excuse-making, and projection of unfair expectations. Forcing these extreme presumptions onto others can, in turn, lead perfectionists to be considered overly critical and thus socially shunned.

Perfectionists tend to scrutinize every flaw and use their triumphs as justification to continue pushing themselves further. In such instances, one cannot let go or forgive themselves for any mistake, leading to stresses in mental health. Chris Procaccino ’25 reflected, “Sometimes [my behavior is] healthy, but a lot of the time it reinforces the mindsets that make me perform poorly in the first place.” 

This cycle is deeply ingrained in people of all ages and quickly becomes problematic for those affected. Any short-term gains pale in comparison to the harmful consequences, which can trail an individual for the rest of their lives, redefine their behavior, and become ingrained in the minds of future generations, thus furthering the toxic mentality. Eventually, these standards can make problems for anyone. Perfection is not synonymous with fulfillment.

Tal Ben-Shahar, a renowned researcher who has devoted his life to the study of perfectionism, noted how institutions often teach their students to focus on success and achievement, outcome-based priorities, rather than longer-term joy; as such, students believe that gratification will come when granted prestige, which is far from the truth. He said, “Achieving a goal will only lead to a temporary spike in happiness levels. The key is to find something that is meaningful to you, and then invest in that — because you care about it.”

Shelley Yang ’24 said, “I procrastinate when I feel unmotivated to do the task at hand. The work is right in front of me, but I don’t think I am capable of finishing the work until the last minute.” Procrastination is a deep cycle tethered to self-worth, but it can often reinforce unhealthy habits. (Pedro Da Silva / Unsplash)

In the same survey mentioned above, 97.1% of students admitted to procrastination, 67.6% gave up early or avoided situations with a stronger likelihood of failure, and 73.5% agreed that their focus in school has been the end product rather than the process of learning. Labiba Islam ’22 said, “[Work avoidance] is more mental exhaustion due to wanting free time, despite my list piling up with many tasks.” 

Procrastination and burnout are deeply intertwined, as the sufferer is left feelingemotionally blunted or numb, constantly overwhelmed, pointless, underappreciated, depleted of motivation, hopeless or helpless, tired or fatigued most of the time” to quote GoodTherapy.org, which provides professional help for those in need.

There is a common misconception that perfectionism is helpful, that it forces oneself to uphold certain standards and encourage improvement. Ben-Shahar differentiates “healthy” perfectionism, renamed optimalism, from the intense, perfection-oriented mindset. In his classification, optimalists welcome the limits of real life as a guide while perfectionists deny the existence of limits and try to push past them to unattainable heights, even at their own expense. “Perfectionists reject painful emotions, do not accept failure, and take for granted any achievement,” Ben-Shahar added. “In contrast, optimalists embrace painful emotions, recognize failure as an important part of learning and growing, and appreciate themselves and the world.”

Investing more time on an action may not improve the work itself, and spending longer on decision-making usually leads to worse decisions. If you work for excessive hours, you are statistically more likely to diminish the quality of your work, emotional intelligence capacity, and fluid reasoning. Mogul Henry Ford chose to reduce weekly hours, mainly to reduce his employees’ mistakes, and it succeeded. (Brett Jordan / Unsplash)

Optimalists are able to accept the truths of reality, the discomfort of pain, and the possibility of failure, which is what allows them to move forward and perform better. In fact, optimalism and optimism are deeply intertwined, as optimalists tend to be optimistic when dealing with challenges. The two words even come from the same Latin root of “optimist” which translates to “best” in English.

Redefining success is a long, difficult process. Optimalism relies heavily on self-love and self-care. As Bronx Science guidance counselor Mrs. Nora Barmess said, “Perfectionism isn’t sustainable. It’s only through our failures that we learn the lesson and about ourselves: our limits, what we can handle, healthy balance. Without those failures, we can’t move forward.” 

Optimalist strategies include following the lead of people in one’s personal life who are succeeding despite making mistakes, prioritizing important tasks, and employing reward systems, among other forms of incentive. Another method is establishing heuristic techniques, which are constant criteria to help decision-making go more smoothly so that one has reference points when rendered indecisive. Ben-Shahar recommended: “First, put yourself on the line, try, and fail more often. Second, express gratitude, appreciate what you have. Third, start a meditation practice — learn to accept the moment, the here and now.”

Not all of your goals may be healthy or possible to prioritize at once, but that does not make you any less competent or smart. As Tal Ben-Shahar stated: “Not giving ourselves the permission to be human leads to more pain and unhappiness. Paradoxically, when we embrace any and all painful emotions, they do not overstay their welcome, and we recover promptly.” (Valentina Conde / Unsplash)

This is easier said than done, but, with time, one can train themselves to celebrate small victories, like increasing a singular percent of a grade or not accidentally burning the food while cooking. Advancement does not have to be big in order to be exciting. One should not need to employ a statistical justification to feel proud.

This change is not only worthwhile, but it is attainable in school and professional environments. “I would think my behavior is healthy because I used to care about the littlest of things but now I don’t think that caring about [every] single little detail is worth it anymore,” Carmen Lin ’23 said. “I felt it was better just to try your best and be happy instead of being perfect.” 

By reaching for optimalism, we can enjoy the journey and not simply torture ourselves along the way, working within reality rather than tormenting ourselves with the impossible. We must recognize that failure is not a flaw, and even if we cannot stop using external criteria as marks of progress, maybe we stop looking at success through the warped lens of utter, unreachable perfection. 

“Perfectionists reject painful emotions, do not accept failure, and take for granted any achievement.” Ben-Shahar added. “In contrast, optimalists embrace painful emotions, recognize failure as an important part of learning and growing, and appreciate themselves and the world.”