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The Chronicle

The Chronicle

The Chronicle

In pursuit of perfection

Perfection, Courtesy of Creative Commons

If you were to look up the definition of perfection, you’d see that it means being free of flaws and faults. It is an idea that we have curated for a standard that we should be or ought to be. We’re encouraged to be the best, but is our best enough to fulfill those expectations?

Dr. Martha Lally is a full-time psychology professor at the College of Lake County and is a licensed psychologist in the state of Illinois. She teaches Introduction to Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Lifespan Development, and Brain and Behavior. In an interview, Dr. Lally explains the effects of perfectionism to individuals.

“Perfectionism really has two parts to it. One is just striving to be the best version of oneself. But then, the second part of it is feeling bad when you don’t meet it and blame yourself for it.” She explained.

Wanting to do the best you can isn’t inherently bad, nor is it wrong. We naturally do want to aim to meet the expectations that are given to us, and it becomes more passionate if it is something we genuinely care about or deem personally important to us. For instance, wanting to aim for the highest grade in a class you enjoy or yearning to create a literary or musical piece that is applauded by the masses is just a normal reaction of a person because it motivates us. It doesn’t help that we also seem to thrive on praise and encouragement in more ways than one.

However, what happens when the need to be the best among the rest gets the better of us?

“There are a few things that we know from the research. It can be somewhat genetic to have a perfectionistic tendency. It is a personality trait.” Dr. Lally shared it with me as we sat down in her office. “Some people just might be born wanting things to be a little bit more perfect.”

She added that some people might come from families that strive for perfectionism, which stems from parents or other members of the family who place an emphasis on them believing that they have to be perfect. “Sometimes, parents might not [verbally] emphasize it, but they might demonstrate it through their own behaviors.” Dr. Lally said that because of that, a child may witness that their parents have that tendency and imitate them.

Dr. Martha Lally.

Additionally, there are some parents who worry about our society and the level of success that one can bring. They believe that in order to achieve that, one must be perfect. As a result, they resort to saying and doing things that ensure that their child is ready to face the world and be the best version of themselves that they can be.

Dr. Lally illustrated that “parents worry that they might fall down the social ladder if they don’t.” She further went on to say that this need to be perfect could come from peer groups. Hanging around with other people who are perfectionistic could be easily picked up in a similar way as that with one’s family.

Social media could also play a key role in developing this mindset due to its easy and simple accessibility. The more extensive usage of it could make one vulnerable not only to perfectionism but also to insecurity because of how effortless and easy it is to obtain that image from looks, careers, and vacation spots. It has become increasingly easier to put out the highlights of one’s life in a single photo in a meticulously well-crafted profile on any social platform now and it might illustrate that everyone is living a good life but you—when that obviously isn’t the case.

“Each individual who might develop perfectionism could be a different person.” Dr. Lally answered. “[It could] come from families, peer groups, [and] society at large.”

According to Dr. Lally, perfectionism has become more of a social construct due to increased rates of it. parents who are worried that their children won’t be able to make it in the world, leading to more pressure from them and a higher rate of adolescents and young adults who strive to achieve it compared to the past.

In a school setting, perfectionism in academics can be seen in high-achieving students. According to the Academic Resource Center at Harvard University, this is the overapplication of high standards related to excellence. This relentless effort to achieve and maintain such standards, although well-intentioned, can be a breeding ground for an unhealthy obsession and perhaps the only basis for self-worth and self-identity.

Dr. Lally described it as, “You’re striving for an A, and you’re doing everything you can to get it. [from] studying all the time, reworking papers, and staying up all night. Then, when you get an A, but you have one error, you’re devastated. But if you get a B, you kick yourself for it.”

She verified that this is a matter of how one reacts to the results and further went on with the scenario she just pointed out. “You’re really hard on yourself; you’re angry, and you take it out on yourself.”

This could lead to a number of different circumstances, such as depression, the development of other mental disorders such as eating disorders, and self-harm when you feel like you’re not doing well or do not meet expectations.

“It’s important to note that this research is all just correlational.” Dr. Lally clarified. “We don’t have causation. But we just keep seeing it over and over again with the same relationship between being perfectionistic and being hard on ourselves, [which would] develop some mental health issues.”

Perfectionistic tendencies are now common among college students.

Social media can attribute feelings of perfectionism. (WikiMedia Commons)

Dr. Lally stated that there is research from last year that looked at tens of thousands of college students and saw a high rate that is close to 1 out of 3, some even to 1 out of 2, of students that show a level of perfectionism.

“Look at our society” she remarked. “There’s so much pressure on young individuals to get to that level of what we consider “a success,” there are a lot of hoops along the way. It’s just a lot for students [because] there’s just so much out there.”

Perfectionism can also come from traditional minoritized groups, such as parents who have sacrificed a lot to move to the United States and pressured their children to achieve the promises being made in the American Dream.

“It’s tough out there in the world. But it’s not just in America.” Dr. Lally noted, “We’re seeing this throughout the world where there’s a lot of pressure for young people to be the best versions of themselves.”

There isn’t anything wrong with striving for the best, nor is wanting to be a high-achieving individual who wants to do excellent work in a certain field such as academics, sports, music, art, and so on. The primary concern is the reaction that comes when one does not meet the standards or makes an error in the process.

“Nobody can be perfect. Everybody makes mistakes.” Dr. Lally said that when it comes to the words that students would need to hear from their social surroundings, “it’s a part of learning.”

Dr. Lally encouraged students who are struggling with perfectionism and their mental health to seek the Counseling and Psychological Services Center, or CAPS, a free, confidential, and professional service that they can use on campus or seek words of wisdom from their professors at the College of Lake County.

Taking on new challenges and striving for excellence is an admirable endeavor and is worthy of respect and praise. However, it shouldn’t be the sole basis of one’s self-worth. Flaws are inevitable in a system and an environment run by humans, and with that come both failure and mistakes. The journey of life isn’t about reaching the top of the mountain; it is about the climb. And we shouldn’t be afraid of the number of falls that might come with it.


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About the Contributor
Rhea Hechanova
Rhea Hechanova, Editor-In Chief