The Mirage of Perfection

“As long as we are tyrannized by an ideal of perfection we will always be at war with ourselves.”

Donna Farhi

In-between the mood swings, defiant behavior, and drama between friends and boyfriends/girlfriends that occur on a frequent basis at the middle school level, there are these fleeting moments with a student that reaffirm that I am exactly where I need to be. Today, I was fortunate enough to have one of those experiences.  

Within today’s lesson, I was teaching my 8th grade students about stress, how stress can be positive or negative, and had them identify what personally causes them stress. As the students were going through this process, one of them, which I would describe as a very well-rounded student who is actively involved in a variety of sports, gets very good grades, is very social, and is polite and respectful to all adults, mentioned that one of his greatest stressors is getting all A’s in school. I then followed up his response by asking him if this expectation comes from his parents or whether this expectation is self-imposed. He responded by saying, this expectation of how well he performs in school comes from himself and left me quite impressed by how much self-awareness owning this expectation required.

Later on in the class, this same student mentioned that the stress of how well he performs academically could be positive because it pushes him to do well, however could also be negative as it often causes some unhealthy effects, such as losing sleep or making him feel sick to his stomach. Although I could see where he was coming from, I also saw it as a teaching moment to assist him in exploring his expectation of perfection. So, I asked him, ‘If you were to get a B, what would happen?” He stated he would feel disappointed and would feel like a failure. I followed this up with, “Would the world end?” He then chuckled a bit and said, “Well, no.” At that point, I mentioned to him that it is great to want to do well, but it is also ok to make mistakes. It is in those mistakes that he will gain the most valuable life experiences, more than he ever would from getting another A.

This expectation of perfection is one in which I am quite familiar with. Similar to this student of mine, I approached school much the same way. I also took this perfectionistic approach to many other aspects of my life. And although I occasionally find myself grasping for this mirage from time to time, I have gained enough wisdom to know that it truly is an illusion. This knowledge has only been gained through the many mistakes I have made throughout my life. Those moments have taught me that the world doesn’t end if I am not perfect, that I will be ok, and I will have new insight or self-awareness to approach similar situations in the future with wisdom and strength. It was in falling down that I learned to get back up and try again. So although I don’t always have the ability to tell each of my students this directly, I want you, whomever you may be, to know that you don’t have to be perfect, because it is in the mistakes you make that you will be a better version of yourself.