It's Not Easy, But I'm Learning to Free Myself From My Perfectionism

What does it really mean to let go? When we turned this question over to our editors and readers, their responses proved that grief, catharsis, and rebirth come in all forms—whether it's finally moving on from a failed relationship, rebuilding oneself after a painful trauma, or quietly saying goodbye to the person you once were. Our series Letting Go highlights these compelling and complicated stories. Below: a submission by reader Jessica Montalvo on the anxieties of being a perfectionist.

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist
Photo: Getty/Natalia Mantini

My parents have always told me—with honest intentions, of course—to do my best. But from a young age, I’ve always interpreted my best as having to be the best. And so a perfectionist was born.

As with any overachieving perfectionist, I always wanted, and still admittedly do, more and more from myself. First place and top of the class were nice, but only if it was the norm; A’s were what grades were supposed to be, and a pristine future with a powerful career was the only path to pursue. In a word, “overachieving” was a daily habit—one that, mind you, I do still strive for. Looking back, these were mantras created internally, on my own. No one forced or pressured me. Like so any other perfectionists, my type A non-negotiables were a cross I constructed myself and one I carried without complaint, eager only to make it more burdensome in a desperate race to be the best—and then, better than that.

The secret that no one lets any of us in on is that eventually that weight is simply too much to bear; the race you run toward the proverbial carrot of complete perfection grows only longer and more treacherous, and the un-railed edges get closer and closer until you give in or derail, and the fall you’ve feared is everything as ungraceful as you dreamed in your darkest nightmare.

Life is hard, phases of it are harder, and in those phases, we push ourselves even harder, perhaps in an ironic reaction to the rosier view on the outside from within. Such was my scenario—and wow, did I push hard. I drove my vision to a narrow pinhole of desperation to do better, finding my efforts less and less effective—whether they truly were or not. Only my goals mattered (academic at the time), set upon golden pedestals that dwarfed other, seemingly less consequential matters like health and well-being. Life fell away with what I know now to be some of its most precious, richest parts. Gone was I; a hollow human hungry (in more ways that one) for a happiness hooked to perfection remained.

When those demands became my everything, they took the ultimate toll on me. Anxiety robbed me of any appetite, and stress stole every last minute of sleep, leaving me edgy, sickly, and barely able to function. I had energy in spurts—bouts of productivity that I used to accomplish my lofty goals—and spent the rest of my downtime just barely surviving, a perpetually panicked shell of the lively, loving person I once was.

My aha moment came in piecemeal, starting with a literal trip-and-fall from which I found myself physically unable to get up. When my cross crushed me, it simultaneously crushed my immediate cravings to be the best. I was terrified, banged and bruised emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically, and knew that something had to give. I had to shed some of the expectations and stressors I surrounded myself with in order to save myself, and I had to do it fast.

I turned to the people who have always been in my corner —on my best days and my worst—and with their support, I learned one of the most important lessons I think I’ll ever discover: My best, and more often than not the best, come not with pushing myself harder and harder, but instead with trusting myself and my abilities and letting things come naturally. There’s truth in the notion of working smarter, not harder, and sanctuary in mindful intuition. The duck on the water goes farther and faster when its efforts are calm and focused, instead of crazed and flailing, and from the outside in and inside out, the calm of the surrounding water is truly soothing, inspiring, and assuring.

While these words to live by are ones that I’ve finally embraced in theory, practicing them is still a work in progress. But in that learning process there is a steady sigh of relief, an ongoing uplifting in my spirit, and a new demand: to keep discovering myself, my natural talents, and all of the ways that life can be lived, less the tension and stress that I once clung to. The empty, dark, and narrow tunnel that leads only to a goal personally purported to be perfection is a deceptive, cold one not worth the venture, and I can say now that this lesson is one of the most difficult to live through.

I was once so bound and determined to muscle my way through thick and thin, but I know now that any goal can be achieved far more easily with a free mind and spirit and with a confidence in myself that I never knew I had. Efforts rooted in a mindful, deliberate, genuine sense are, in fact, more effective than those thrown forth in fury. The results that come of the efforts I frame as my best are, in the end, truly the best, and each day I grow better for them.