Here’s the next installment of our “Letters to Parents” series, in which we give Beijing high school or college-aged young people the chance to write a letter to some of the most important people in their lives – their parents. As ever, if you have any ideas or would like to join this project, get in touch.
When was the last time that you had to remind me to study? I don’t remember either, because it must have been a long time ago, and you don’t need to anymore. In fact, you feel proud to tell everyone that I’m the kind of daughter who takes the initiative to sacrifice her free time for SAT practice, or wakes up thirty minutes earlier every morning to learn Spanish by listening to CNN español. I might appear to be successful from the outside, and I’m glad to make you feel proud of me. The truth, however, is that ever since I have become this “productive” student, I feel the least successful as I have ever been.
This need to always be working on something probably started when you told everyone about how well I did on the TOEFL exam four years ago. I must admit that it felt good to hear the congratulations from your coworkers and to know that my aunts and uncles were using me as a role model to motivate their children to study hard. But why did you only focus on my achievements, rather than who I was as a person?
I knew that’s when my perfectionism started, and it was further encouraged by the many times that you bragged about what I have achieved or what I have done. What’s more, the “success stories” that you told me, about students who won one math competition after another, who went to top-ranking schools, were never helpful for my self-esteem. When you patted me on my back and told me that “I know you’ll be as successful as they are”, I was terrified and anxious. I know you want nothing but the best for your daughter, but it is hard not to interpret your message as that I will never be good enough until I become as successful as they are. Your focus on those external factors shaped my definition of success.
You see, when I was productive or when I had accomplished something, I felt successful and worthy; without the shield of my achievements, however, I felt like a loser.
My perfectionism told me that I'm not good enough by just being myself. I tried to be perfect in everything that I do because I was afraid of not being able to measure up to your expectations. As a result, I no longer felt confident without external achievements. For example, when I messed up on a mini-quiz that no one else even cared about, I criticized myself: “You’re so stupid. You got even the most basic questions wrong. You’re not good at anything.” When I wanted to award myself for taking the SAT by watching a movie, I couldn’t — twenty minutes into Call Me by Your Name, I became anxious about not being productive. I turned off the movie and opened my Biology worksheet.
You probably can tell by now why I have always been so productive. I was driven by the fear of failure, a sense of duty, a never-ending satisfaction, and the desire to be accepted. How I wanted to take a break, spend a day to take care of myself or even just sleep in on a weekend. I couldn’t. I was so afraid of failing.
But please don’t worry about me; I no longer believe in the vain promises of my perfectionism. Please don’t feel bad; I understand that you didn’t know either that focusing so much on what I can achieve could cause my mental health to deteriorate.
There’s only one thing that I ask of you; that instead of “I’m proud of you for earning that A in math”, you would tell me, “Nothing is perfect. You are not perfect. But you are still worthy”.
Thanks for reading! If you are affected by the issues in the letter in any way or are facing a mental health crisis, access support via the resources below. And remember to follow CandleX on Twitter if you haven’t already @CandleX_Beijing