The Disease Called Perfectionism

Journalism Student Ashley Dorius recounts a different kind of pandemic sweeping the hallways of Elkhorn South


Dear Reader,

As I look around the halls of our dear Elkhorn South High School, I can’t help but notice a very acute portion of the student body is affected by the same slightly toxic disease. Its common name is perfectionism, and it is prevailing as the number one mindset of a Storm Student. This ailment is best described as a need to do everything right, not mess up and most of all, be perfect, and it’s incredibly common in our school. However, I think this epidemic has gone on long enough. 

Too often I hear statements of exhaustion, pain, worry and despair as I sit in my AP classes. We are put under an unnecessary level of stress from many sources (including ourselves,) but has all the pressure shaped us into diamonds like we want to believe? I don’t truly believe it has. There are a select few miracle stories, those brilliant people who can do it all. But for every one of them, there are a hundred more who are seconds away from another crying spell and complete breakdown. I would know, as I am one of those. 

We all start with stars in our eyes. We believe that with a lot of hard work and a pinch of luck and a Disney-style-go-getter attitude, we will be the best and the brightest. People will be clamoring to give us scholarships and dream careers, and with that financial security and contentment. That often goes awry though. There are only so many hours in a day, so many classes you can take, so many volunteer places to work for and so many extracurricular activities you can do. I’ve heard the jokes of “APUSH means no social life!” and “If you wanted to sleep, you should’ve thought about that before starting high school!” However, why is that the case? Why is it that being the competitive, well-rounded, intelligent, capable and “perfect” candidate comes from a level of worry, fear and unhealthy behavior never before seen? 

Let’s go back to my diamonds metaphor. Some people are amazing and can handle the pressure of a million responsibilities, but others can’t. We should push for excellence, but not to the point where we crack. Some people are meant to be diamonds from carbon beginnings, but other people are just plain rocks. They’re still useful and beautiful, and they have a purpose. However, when we press too hard, they are shattered. We need to learn the difference between students who are capable of being amazing intellectually with no emotional harm and students who cannot. This isn’t to say these students are stupid. They are brilliant and capable of great good, but they are not emotionally strong enough to bear the weight. 

Studies have shown time and time again that people need the things high school students have begun to deprive themselves of. Sleep is a necessary, important thing that keeps our bodies in top condition. On top of that, social interaction is vital to our development as humans, and connecting with other people makes us feel better and be happier. However, we don’t give ourselves time to do either of these things. It’s gotten to the point where we treat our cars better than we treat ourselves.

You and I have all seen the research. We’ve heard constantly that depression, anxiety and other mental health problems have never been more prevalent in teens than now. This trend in the data is not what we are hoping for. Kids today are reported to be less mentally stable and healthy than any other previous generation (including the ones from World Wars.) We have seen depressions and anxiety in action in our hallways. We all know that sometimes we really do want to get hit by a bus, and it’s not just a joke. This mental state has become the new normal. In fact, it’s not just normal, it’s customary and commonplace. How horribly depressing is that? I’ve seen it and heard the stories. I’ve, and others like me have experienced things like it first hand. It’s not ok and if something in our lives is causing these thoughts, then it has to go before our own well-being does. 

 The argument that we are weak pansies who can’t handle stress like the previous generations is flawed. We’ve all heard our parents say the classic, “in my day,” forgetting that it was a simpler time then. College was cheaper and less competitive. Nowadays, just to get in, we’re told by counselors, parents, and teachers we need at least a 3.5 GPA, almost-perfect standardized test scores, some sort of job, multiple leadership positions, a few volunteer hours, mastery of a foreign language, some random hobby, a tragic story of triumph and tons of other things. Teenagers literally do things just to build up their applications instead of pursuing what they want! Meanwhile, my father says he did 2 extracurriculars, had a C, and had no dramatic backstory, and he’s now a well-respected doctor. So, when did we get here? When did we get to a place where we are never enough, where we always fall flat? When did we decide there is nothing to do but work, and that’s all that we should do? When did we begin to choose hustle culture over our own sanity? When did we decide to be perfect? And what do we do about it?

That’s just the thing. I am a 16-year-old girl. I don’t have any genius answers for you. I can’t tell you when we transitioned to this mindset that we must be perfect at all costs. I can only tell you how I’ve seen it affect people, and what I think is best. I’m no expert, but giving a crack at it is better than nothing. 

I have struggled with perfectionism my entire life. I always believed anything that wasn’t 98% or up was worthless. I believed if I wasn’t breaking my back with textbooks, I had it all wrong. If I wasn’t busy doing something every night, I was going to fail at life. That, in case you weren’t aware, is not the healthiest mindset. It’s instilled in me, however. As I’ve gone through my life, I’ve seen the negative effect it’s had on me. I stress over very small things. I over-analyze every mistake, playing situations over and over in my head to find the “right” way I should’ve handled it. I cry way too much. I’m constantly tired and falling asleep at my kitchen table. And still, I work. I read like my life depends on it. I sign up for every volunteering opportunity at church. Even now, my laptop has tabs open on job-shadowing opportunities and career assessments. That, very slowly but even more surely, is chipping away at me until I am nothing more than a husk of a person, a joyless creature whose only master is laboring away to achieve dreams I no longer will enjoy reaching.

The worst part is, I’m not the only one. There are tons of students like me, some even more severe. They are shoved into classes and activities they have no time for, saying they “can handle it” and they “need to prove their potential.” They barely survive, chugging their double-shot espressos and Red Bulls as they drive from school to work to school, and finally home where they drink another ungodly amount of caffeine and write essays and reports and equations. If they go to bed, it’s not until after midnight when they’ve finished the ironic essay they wrote on the importance of sleep for AP Psych. This has become the new “classic American teenager.” And we are praised for it. People are rewarding us, training us like monkeys to destroy ourselves at every chance we have. They give us a shot in the dark in exchange for our sleep, time, social lives, family, loves and even our very souls. And we willingly, complacently and humbly accept all terms and conditions of the trade.

People might think I’m blaming someone here, the administration, parents, teachers, friends or ourselves. It’s all of those things and more. We are trying so hard to be worthy of some random institutions’ time that we forget we are human beings. The adults are trying so hard to give us a shot in a scary world that they forget we have limits. We are not made to slave under chains we forged ourselves, with a vague hope it’ll end when we retire. We are made to laugh and love and cry, to have passions and make mistakes and feel alive.

I’m not saying work isn’t necessary. Work provides a sense of purpose, accomplishment and fulfillment. We need to work to live, and we need to work to improve. However, there’s a fine line between powerful and needed growth and unrepairable detriment. I can’t even say we are toeing the line anymore. We’ve left that line way behind us, and with it, all that makes us human. 

Now that I have ranted at you, you are probably asking, “what now?” Truth to be told, I have no perfect answer for you. At the end of the day, colleges are still going to require a lot of us. We still have those advanced classes and hours of clubs and sports. However, maybe we can lighten the load. Adults, you can be merciful to situations and be approachable. Understand that it is impossible to do it all, and it is ultimately our decision and our fault for our futures. We know you don’t want us to fail, but right now we aren’t exactly succeeding. Students, we can try dropping the things that don’t bring us joy, and not judging people when they do the same. We can not try to compare our worst against other people’s facade of their perfect lives. We can ask teachers to be willing to extend a deadline by a day to get a few hours of much-needed shut-eye. We can accept that not-so-great grade instead of stressing over the smallest verb tense mistake. We can spend a second talking to our friends instead of rushing to practice. We can just take a few moments to be. There’s no great answer I can give at the level I’m at. I can’t reform the system in the way I’d like. But I can make people see the problem, and inspire some extremely important first steps in your own personal life. So take a breath, take a drive, take a minute. Put on a mud mask and put away your math worksheet for a second. Stop stressing over every detail and start enjoying every moment. Start living your life for yourself, not for some future robot you who doesn’t exist yet. Do things that you actually want to do because you like them. Go out with friends, do stupid things, create stories you can tell your kids someday. Because, sometime in the not-so-distant future, we will look back at our lives when taking our final breaths. I know I don’t want to look back and see a worrisome, soulless, brainwashed “perfect” worker ant with no real purpose or drive, and I’m sure you don’t either. I want to see some excitement, joy, passion, heartache, loss, pain, hope, growth, emotion and love. That can, and should, start right now. As a wise BBQ joint sign in Kansas City said, “Don’t you dare take life too seriously, no one gets out of it alive anyway.” I hope you can follow that advice, and live a life filled with memories. 


Ashley Dorius