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January 29, 2023

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

By Kayla R.
, 12th grade
, from Long Beach, CA

I’ve never been good at making decisions. Every year, I couldn’t decide what classes or electives to take, and even after I chose them, I would always think I made a mistake. Same with smaller things like what color I should make a poster for a project, or what day to schedule something. Then it came time to research colleges, and I felt paralyzed by the number of schools to narrow my list down to. My friends would joke that I was incapable of making a decision. I was always stuck because I felt another option might be better, or that I was making a mistake in choosing one thing over another.

But when I started looking at colleges junior year, my school counselor told me something that shocked me. I wasn’t just indecisive. I was a perfectionist, and it wasn’t a healthy way to go through life. She explained that perfectionism isn’t just about having high standards. It’s about living in fear of things going wrong. Then she suggested that I might want to see a therapist to learn better ways to deal with this.

I did see a therapist, and I was diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I couldn’t believe it, because I thought of OCD as someone who checks the lights or the stove all the time. But OCD is also being so afraid of something going wrong that you just can’t make decisions about anything. I learned that it’s a form of anxiety, which makes sense, because decisions always throw me into full-on panic mode. I literally freeze.

Last summer, I did cognitive behavioral therapy to learn better ways to deal with my OCD, and I also practiced a healthier way of  making decisions. Although you might not have OCD, I think these lessons are helpful to anyone who struggles with making decisions, especially as we have more and more decisions to make as high school ends. 

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Everyone has a different  way of making decisions. Some people feel more comfortable deciding right away, while others like to sit with the decision for a few days. Know which kind of decision-maker you are.
  2. Gather information: Before making a decision, do some research. Maybe it’s asking someone with experience in this area for information, reading about the topic, or doing research online. But give yourself a time limit for this phase–an hour, a day, a weekend–so you have just enough information without overloading yourself.
  3. Make  a list: But keep it short so you don’t get obsessive and list every single thing that could go wrong. List 3 pros and 3 cons. Sometimes it helps to see your thoughts on paper.
  4. Give yourself a deadline: This has been most important for me. When I give myself a short window to make the decision, I know I have to let it go and move on. 
  5. Trust yourself: At the end of the day, your intuition is more important than the other factors. Get quiet and listen to yourself.
  6. Learn from your decisions: One thing I’ve learned is that even if I choose something and then think I should have done something else, it’s not the end of the world. Each decision I make helps me to learn more about myself and what I want, so the experiences that didn’t turn out to be what I wanted are valuable too. The more practice I get with making decisions, the better I’ll get at it.

I still have perfectionistic tendencies, but I’m working hard to use these strategies to make the best decisions I can make in the moment, and then just live my life. I already decided which college I’ll go to if I get in (and then which one I’ll go to if I don’t get into that one, and the one I’ll go to if I don’t get into that one, etc.) because knowing this in advance will keep me out of panic  mode once the decisions are in.

If you have trouble making decisions, feel like you’re a perfectionist, or might have OCD,  definitely know that there’s help. Ask your school counselor if they can recommend a therapist or clinic that you can go to. It’s really changing my life.

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