The Prison of Perfectionism

As a first-generation college student, it’s easy to assume the role of perfection to ensure your loved ones’ sacrifices are worthwhile, but you should allow yourself to experience failure.

Sophomore public relations major KwaTashea Marfo poses by the Village on Ball State campus Aug. 28. Jacy Bradley, DN
Sophomore public relations major KwaTashea Marfo poses by the Village on Ball State campus Aug. 28. Jacy Bradley, DN

KwaTashea Marfo is a sophomore public relations major and writes “Imperfectly Perfect” for The Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. 

Mixed with the fragrance of Febreze Hawaiian Aloha roaming the air, their pure look of shock and amusement struck me to the core.

One Friday night, dim fairy lights overcast the desk in the right corner of my dorm as I completed an assignment for Communication and Popular Culture. My roommate’s parents entered the room, prepared to take their daughter out for bowling but were startled to see me deep in thought, typing away on my laptop for an assignment that was due the following Monday.

I hadn't left my desk prior to them entering the room, but the pressure of their eyes glaring at me told me to take a break. 

My sudden movement was enough for them to prompt me with questions. Immediately, they asked why I was working on an assignment so late in the night and on a Friday night, of all reasons. 

Ever so proudly, I expressed that working ahead for my classes was a commitment I made to myself since stepping foot on campus. 

A sense of amusement arose on their faces.

College has many areas of focus, and your studies are an important factor, but networking, campus involvement, self-identification and making mistakes are all contributing factors that can lead to a successful college experience, her parents said.

Their words of advice smacked me across the forehead like a light bulb of realization.

Of all people, why didn't the perfectionist know this? All the planning and research I had done prior to arriving on campus seemed pointless. 

From an outside perspective, it’s easy to assume something as small as this doesn’t seem like a big deal. However, for a perfectionist like me, I thrive on strategically planning for events and factors to avoid the aching fear of failure. 

Their words of advice felt so meaningful and safe like the lyrics of “Be Alright” by Kehlani, yet was the hardest pill for me to swallow. At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp why their advice stirred such a strong sense of emotion within me, but the more I resonated with their words, the more I came to a realization.

My perfectionism is my greatest flaw.

Whether I was gravitating toward the approval of my parental figures or being the go-to-person for everyone when they were down or in need of assistance, I adopted a lifestyle of being a perfectionist — a lifestyle that consisted of being there for others as much as I wished someone was there for me. 

Every time I tell someone how I’m feeling, they never relate to me in a sense, so I never feel comfortable enough to express how I’m feeling. These instances occurred most when I took a test and knew I could do better, but my friends and family would tell me it’s not that bad, minimizing my feelings. 

I wish people didn’t minimize my feelings. I wish they would listen to me, not just tell me it’s not a big deal. 

From a perfectionist standpoint, it was a big deal. 

It’s not to say I do not have individuals in my life that are there for me, but in a sense, I feel like no one holds themselves to such a prestigious standard as I hold myself because I force myself not to feel emotions that suggest failure.

An imperfection I have tried to perfect over the years has overpowered my ability to be a human overall, locking me in a physiological prison. 

This prison I generated was ultimately a byproduct of my parent’s hefty reminder of having my best interest at heart. At first glance, it’s easy to suggest that my parents having my best interest at heart was merely them wanting their daughter to succeed in every aspect of life imaginable. 

However, it is important to take into consideration that I am a first-generation product of my father who immigrated to the United States in the late 1900s from Ghana, West Africa, and I am a first-generation college student. 

Both of these factors made me dismiss failure as an option because the thought of failure seemed like a slap in the face to my parents, who have sacrificed to ensure I have the best opportunities presented to me. 

Yet, until that Friday night, I never realized avoiding the risks of failure forced me to mature at a much faster rate than my peers, prohibiting me from making mistakes and appreciating the trials that could ultimately lead to success but at a different pace. 

My ideology of perfectionism encouraged me to live my everyday life based on a strategic structure that did not permit room for failure. In doing so, I developed immense stress when things didn't go as planned. 

For first-generation immigrants and college students alike, it is easy to assume the responsibility of making your loved ones proud, to make their sacrifices worthwhile. However, assuming this immediate role of seeking approval can drive you to trap yourself in a constant loophole.

A loophole that gravitates toward fulfilling unrealistically high standards fueled by the approval of others. It will cause you to neglect yourself, make you feel dissatisfied and inadequate when those standards are anything less-than perfect. 

To escape this prison, find a balance of acceptance. Accept the fact that you cannot always give 1,000 percent, but acknowledge that you are progressing through life to the best of your ability.

There will still be days where you trap yourself in your perfectionism prison, unable to shake the feeling of being consumed by guilt and shame. When this happens, remind yourself to not let  perfectionism determine your fate. Through the lens of a fellow first-generation perfectionist, your approval is what matters most. 

Contact KwaTashea Marfo with comments at or on Twitter @mkwatashea.


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