Mr. Kelly and I were standing in the hallway trying to figure out what my last article would be when he asked me what I would tell my freshman self. While, ideally, I would tell myself not to try so hard and that the grades aren’t worth the struggle, I find that hypocritical. If I were to go back in time, I’m not sure I would do anything differently. Not because I found a way to combat this issue but because I’m still stuck in this toxic mindset. If anything, I think my perfectionist tendencies might be even worse if I were to do it all again. I’ve seen the outcome and have become addicted to it despite the personal consequences. I have become so obsessed with the idea of grades and being as perfect as possible academically, that I’ve learned to sacrifice everything to achieve these unrealistic standards. With this response, Mr. Kelly simply replied, “write about it.”
This conversation left me wondering: why do I care so much? Why am I willing to make myself miserable just for this thing that won’t matter in a few years, maybe even a few months? Especially now that I’ve committed to a college and would have to fail out of school to get that taken away from me, why do I still feel the need to get such good grades? Why does it feel like I need these perfect grades to survive? Even writing this article, I’m worried it won’t be good enough or produce a grade that I’m proud of. But why? Why does it matter?
I still don’t know the answers to these. It’s something I’ve wrestled with my entire high school career, but especially this year. Honestly, I’m kind of over it. I hate feeling this way, yet I can’t seem to figure out why I’m like this. In hopes of getting some answers, or at least a different perspective on my perfectionism, I decided to talk to those close to me about my experience.
My mom, Susan Laliberte, said, “You need to realize that the world is not going to end if you don’t do as well as you think you should. Whether you graduate first or last, you’re getting the same degree. You need to make sure you’re taking time for yourself to relax and have fun because, in the end, those are the important things, and the things which will help you to better yourself.” My mom feels I don’t let myself prioritize anything other than school, making it the main focus of my life and, therefore, my identity.
Although this was hard to come to terms with at first, my mom was right. Unlike other people in my life who have cool hobbies to channel, school has always been the only option I have to prove myself. I had quit all of my sports by seventh grade and didn’t have any other consistent outlet to achieve in. Because of this, I have put everything I have into school and my assignments, which have ultimately become the core of my identity.
Because I devote almost all my energy to academic perfection, I mostly receive validation because of my grades and academic performance. I want to know that the people I surround myself with are proud of me, and I have found school to be my way to prove that. I constantly seek validation because I don’t have the self-esteem to provide it myself. “The way that [people] attain validity as a human is through work. So, you are working as hard as you can, and that’s how you know that you’re being a good person, good daughter, sister, friend, et cetera. You personally determine your worth based on this rigid definition of what is ‘enough,’” said Scott McGrath, a social studies teacher at ORHS whom I’ve talked to about these struggles.
This relentless desire for validation often leads me to compare myself to others, making me feel like I always have to be meeting the standards of those around me to prove that I’m worthy of existing alongside them. Personally, a significant source of comparison for me has been my older brother, Matthew Laliberte (‘21). As the younger sibling to someone who became a private pilot at the age of eighteen, it’s hard not to diminish my own successes, especially when they’re not as impressive in my mind.
Matthew said, “I think you definitely feel pressure to be as good or better than those around you out of fear of being considered a weak link or odd one out.” While I can’t fly a plane, I do have school—in reality, that’s all I have. Even looking at Matthew’s academic career, I was always hearing from others how smart and how great of a student he was. He made the top ten (and that is something to be proud of!), but I always felt like to be worthy of praise myself, I had to do as well—or better—than him.
Even when I’m not comparing myself to others, it feels like I’m continuously competing with myself. If I get a 98 during the first quarter of a class, I automatically feel pressured to get a 98 or better in the next quarter. This is extremely unrealistic, but once I prove I can do something once, I refuse to let myself ‘slip’ and do less than before. I’m constantly trying to one-up myself, but there’s only so high a grade can go, and there’s only so far I can push myself before I break. When I think about it, it doesn’t make sense. Each quarter has different assignments, different assessments, and different priorities. It isn’t a copy-paste experience, so why should I expect my grade to be? I want those around me to see that I’m striving to do my best and grow as a student, but this has quickly turned into a cycle of unhealthy obsession and unrealistic standards.
There are many nights when I feel paralyzed by school, staring at the wall for hours. As I was trying to write this article, I got stuck. I stared at my computer for three hours, willing myself to write. As I sat, I was pleading with myself, begging my brain to let me write something, literally anything. But I’ve been so scared that this article won’t be enough that I couldn’t seem to move. On the outside, I look bored and lazy, but on the inside, my mind is going at a hundred miles a minute, frustration consuming me.
School causes so much anxiety that I have found myself in an endless, vicious cycle of procrastination. I want so badly to do everything perfectly that I avoid my assignments in fear of failure. I live by the mindset of ‘if I don’t start something, I can’t mess it up.’ How can I do something wrong if I don’t do it at all?
My best friend, Sarah Boler (‘23), thinks that procrastination is one of my biggest issues when it comes to my perfectionism. “The biggest issue I see is that you’re so scared of being wrong that you can’t ever just go for it. So, you procrastinate a lot, and the entire time you’re procrastinating, you’re worrying about how the thing you’re working on isn’t going to be perfect. The more you procrastinate, the worse your perfectionism is, because all you do is think about it and obsess over it more and more,” said Boler.
While I still complete my assignments on time, because with late assignments comes lost points, I am always doing them at the last minute—late the night before the due date and even early the morning of. I have had many nights where I am up until 4 am doing work or where I go to bed at midnight and wake back up at 3:30 to finish assignments. Honestly, it’s unhealthy, both mentally and physically. It greatly contributes to my poor mental health and, consequently, has affected my physical health. It’s clear to me that something has to change, yet I am so scared of being considered less than, or a disappointment, that I continue with these torturous tendencies. I would rather be miserable than deemed not good enough.
While this is something I’ve struggled with a lot, I know I’m not alone. At Oyster River High School (ORHS), there is a huge cultural pressure to get amazing grades, have the best grade point average, and make top ten within your graduating class. It’s always a competition to see who stayed up the latest doing homework, who got the best grade on a test, and who has the highest SAT score. Jason Baker, a school counselor at ORHS, agrees that the ORHS culture surrounding grades can be difficult for students who strive to do well in school. “There are a decent number of high achieving students [at ORHS], which can make it hard not to compare yourself to your peers. Even just through conversation, grades come up and career goals, and plans for after high school. It can be nearly impossible to not constantly evaluate yourself against that and feel the need to keep up with everyone around you.”
Among many high achievers at ORHS, there is a continuous battle of comparison and competition with your peers, even when you don’t want there to be. If you aren’t comparing yourself to others, someone else is. I’ve literally had another student point to me and my friend before a test and say, “Which one of you is going to do better?” I find myself getting disappointed when I do worse than someone, even if it’s by one point. I begin to spiral, thinking about all the stupid mistakes I made or how I could have done better and put in more effort, even when I spent a ridiculous amount of time and energy on an assignment or project. I hate it because why can’t we all just be proud of ourselves for the work we put in? What difference does a 95 versus a 96 really make?
While I know it doesn’t matter, knowing and believing are two very different things. I could easily sincerely remind someone else that their best is enough, but for some reason my brain has decided that that doesn’t apply to me. I remember sitting with my friend after getting back a test grade for AP Physics. Even though we got the same exact grade, a mediocre 73, I immediately began reminding them about how hard they worked and how hard the class and specific unit was. I remember feeling proud of them and wishing I could take away their disappointment, when at the same time, I was incredibly disappointed in myself and angry that I didn’t do better. When it comes to celebrating accomplishments and acknowledging how hard you tried, my brain has decided that when it comes to me, hard work and perseverance aren’t enough to be proud of without a perfect grade accompanying them.
Even though I’ve committed to a college, and I know I won’t be kicked out if I start getting A-’s and B’s instead of A’s and A+’s, I can’t seem to cut myself some slack. I feel like this is my last chance to prove myself, yet I’m not even sure what I’m trying to prove at this point. No one is sitting here monitoring and obsessing over my every grade except me. Quite frankly, no one cares except for me. What others do care about is me—my interests, my well-being, and my happiness—not my every academic score.
While I may not have discovered the perfect solution to my obsession with grades, I did learn something even more valuable. Through my conversations with my friends, family, and teachers, I learned that the same people I am trying to impress are the same people who wish I would stop. They want me to change. They would rather I get average grades and put less of myself into my schoolwork, if it meant that I was happy and able to separate myself from school. At the end of the day, they just want me to be happy.
Looking back at my ninth-grade self, I understand that there’s nothing I could tell her to “fix” this. My perfectionism is part of my identity, and I don’t think that’s something that will change anytime soon. But I wish I could tell her to truly live instead of just exist. Take the time to find things you’re passionate about, aside from school, because those are the things which will make it easier to deal with the stress of perfection. Instead of bottling it all up, talk to people. The people who care about you want to help you, and dealing with it all alone will only make the already isolating experience so much worse. While this will always be a part of me, that doesn’t mean it has to consume me. I realize I don’t have a time machine to go back and tell all of this to 14-year-old Sarah, but if anything, I think I need to hear this just as much, if not more. I need to learn to take my own advice, so I can truly begin to live.
Title courtesy of Taylor Swift