Perfectionist by Vanessa Chastain Rivas

The auditorium did not notice when I, alone, stirred in my chair.

Proctors—our teachers, transmuted,

with hawk-eyes and dog-ears

probed the spaces and drifted the gaps,

which divided the rows and split the columns.

Not one made a sound.

Students—hunched over bubble-letter answer sheets,

marked crisscross sweeps and circular flourishes inherently,

bowed their heads gravely and deafened their ears apparently.

Not one heard a sound.

What the proctors’ radar did not detect failed to excite theirs.

Not one cared to look when I, alone, stirred in my chair.

I read a passage, but I did not read it. Words entered and passed against the hardened nerves of a paralyzed brain. Trembling, trembling. Shriveled, calloused and jaded, the nerves registered nothing, transported no phrases through epic distances, and deciphered no code. Instead, I saw questions with meanings that led to more questions. Profoundly, the PSAT test booklet asked, What would the author say about his topic? Similarly, I asked, What would I say about my topic? We both agreed. We could say quite a bit, but in fact, we said nothing at all.

Repeatedly, the counselor had informed me that this year’s exam did not count, but beneath her clownish, conciliatory guise, she had watched me. She had surveyed me. She had torn me of my skin, exposed me for a wretch, and sent me shivering into the dark. Sometimes, her view had been so unnervingly accurate that it penetrated the flesh into the core, the hollow, ghastly core, of my heart. There, she saw sights of the kind that I could never know. She scandalized; she objected. A beaky, croaking spectator, she babbled her “corrective” suggestions, but poorly concealed a constant awareness that she, too, was being watched.

The counselor was standing at her place among the other proctors. With droning, feeble gestures, they prodded us along, seeking to perpetuate a system that they themselves did not believe in. Like them, this system was human. No, I was human. I made mistakes, but the system did not allow for mistakes. It only allowed for perfection—harsh, cold, surface perfection. It only recognized a column of A’s, a brilliant test score, and a flawless impression—what it called the academic “ideal”—in its vision of worthiness. Perfect. That did not describe me at all. I constantly put out, but I constantly put in. Further, I pushed myself to emulate this ideal, and further, I drew back into the dregs of obscurity. So, again, What would I say about my topic?

My topic was to question myself.

(Especially when the question did not exist.)

Time was of the essence, but the essence had passed.

(Time had left with it.)

I stirred.

(But only when I cried did anybody notice.)

When the proctors asked me what had happened, I sorrowfully clung to my usual excuse of physical illness, but in truth, my only illness had been of the mental variety. Many signs had indicated that the disruption had been coming for a long time that day. Such disasters were not even foreign to me; this had only been the latest in an impressive resume of freak-outs, blow-ups, and cry-spells that had stemmed from my earliest days at school.

I knew the falling.

I knew the fall.

So why did I let it happen?

Visions of the future had loomed impressively overhead, for days, hours, years, foretelling the disasters that awaited my successes at failure. As I sat alone in a cloistered room, reruns played over and over to me of my mistakes, each new clip like a scene in a scary movie. Only these rolls of film—grainy, disjointed and worn by years of poor storage—projected with more fright, more terror, because I was in them. Falling, falling. Throughout every frame. Looking in at myself, I watched the nightmares as they repeatedly enveloped me with rights turned wrong, wrongs turned worse, expectations never met, and I sobbed.

I was truly imperfect.

I never did finish that test. Raising my hand, I asked one of the proctors if I could be excused. If I left, she told me, they would have to destroy my test. I did not care. Storming out through the double-doors, I removed myself from the room without hearing a word otherwise. I was willing to do anything to rid myself of this failing grade’s burden.

Destruction is what we, perfectionists, do best. On the surface, we perpetuate the high-achieving image of model student, peer leader or creative genius that society seems so eager to pin on us, but beneath the surface, we crumble to pieces under the enormous pressure of our own shadows. In a desperate effort to evade our imperfect sides, we destroy every part of our surroundings that might be connected to them, and when we do not find success with this, we have no choice but to destroy the true imperfections: ourselves.

Poet Sylvia Plath, a known perfectionist who committed suicide at thirty, might have condemned her self-destructing idiosyncrasies in the opening lines of a poem titled The Munich Mannequins: “Perfection is terrible,” she claimed. “[I]t cannot have children./Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb.” [i] This poem, written shortly before her death in 1963, at once briefly summarized and chillingly prophesied what would become her ultimate destruction.

During her young adulthood, Sylvia received honors from every direction. Her school grades were flawless. Publishers were flocking towards her for poems, and phenomenal success seemed inevitable. Unknown to everybody around her, however, Sylvia was falling. Towards the end of her college career, she became so paralyzed that she started to reject the world around her, blow off opportunities, scorn herself and everybody else with ruthless insults, and commit irrational acts.

Finally, she did the unthinkable: the attempt.

After living in a mental hospital, she recovered, but the risk remained. The self-defeating sentiments ingrained in her mind teemed with questions about her perfection’s validity, and continued to erode her resolve. She found love, she lost love; she found success, she lost success. She lived on until the walls began to cave in again. She was losing everything. She was slipping away, but she wrote feverishly. The greatest works of her life, in fact, she penned at the eve of its closing. Suddenly bursting with creation, the idea of death might have overcome her as a sudden fit of glorious inspiration: to destroy.

Reading her work, an overwhelming power uproots my soul and imbues my heart with an intensely personal meaning. Sylvia Plath knew more about perfectionism than any expert. We all do. I do not think that anybody who has never been passionate about perfection could understand its trials more than we. It is simply impossible to simulate those endless, ruminating cycles that we pass over when we ask ourselves, Why can’t I do it right? or, Why am I so close? or, Why will I never be there? Her vision of perfection’s infertility is startlingly accurate. “It tamps the womb,” she described. Absorbed in trying to be perfect, a person will inexorably fall short of his or her true potential and, swept up in the order of expectation, will eventually run loose in chaos as the order breaks down. No good will come from what, if anything, is produced.

Letters darted across a newly opened Word document. Hardly reaching three-quarters of a line, I swiftly deleted this ineffectual prattle with a few backspace presses. Ticking with greater haste by the minute, the hands of my wristwatch lewdly confessed the wearing of the hour. A binding, intoxicating haze caressed the lids of my eyes, numbed the arches of my cheeks. Slumber rapidly descended upon me, but while such petty, disjointed prose remained, I would never rest.

“Branching out—into an imposing grid-work—of—” Of—what? Hadn’t I already written this; hadn’t I already rewritten this? Five times? Hadn’t I already concluded that this did not connect properly with my next sentence? Hadn’t I already decided to scrap the phrase altogether? Why did I fall back upon it once more, although I had long since abandoned the opening lines of my essay? Hadn’t I realized that nothing would be gained by editing, once again, this sentence?

I reread the two-paged hook that, only now, I had completed. Voluble and lucid, the text sometimes rambled off the page, latched onto the heart, and settled into the mind. Halted and choppy, the text otherwise seemed like a quick fix, a patch-up, for my lacking enthusiasm. I wanted this to be my passion. Arranged to the specifications of technical perfection, I wanted this to be my soul spilled onto a page. Instead it was sloppy, plain, dissatisfying and sloppy; I did not want to look at it.

It was a work in progress. Constantly, a work in progress. Already, a month had passed since its projected due date, and I had never turned it in. Instead, I had redone it many, many times, until I knew it was exactly the way that I wanted it. No, the closest that it would ever be to the way that I wanted it. I had finally summed up the courage to hand it over for critique.

Somehow, it never reached my teacher’s hands, and a few days later, I was still trying to decide how to write its conclusion—this one, brief paragraph, that, with four or five sentences, might make or break my paper’s success. At two o’clock in the morning—I was on vacation—I took out my laptop, placed it on my lap, and vainly began to type some letters across the screen. I did not even think—I was too tired—about what I was typing. I wrote a few words across the screen. That was all. Then I deleted them. Frustrated, I deleted them. I pressed save. I went to bed.

Three days later, my aunt and I were sitting in her car. We were returning from an afternoon excursion to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and an ensuing visit with her college-aged daughter in Orlando. I decided to stop procrastinating and finish my conclusion. I took out my laptop, opened my word processor and clicked the recent documents menu. I selected my file off the very top. Five seconds passed; it loaded. The little gray bar across the bottom had reached its limit. It was done. Expecting to see my essay, I looked up. Then, I looked down, sideways, up again. A gaping emptiness extended across the screen. My essay was not there.

Emotions went rampant. I screamed; I shouted; I threatened; I cried. My aunt angrily rebuked me. I did not listen. Success had stood just ahead of my reach; I had felt it; I had tasted it; it had been tangible. The memory of those words on that screen cruelly taunted me; I could see them jotting across as individual, black specks, but I could not get close enough to read them. I wanted them back. This was cruel. I saw them there. They were there! So near! I wanted them! I would find them! Somehow, somehow, the void had not extinguished their meaning. I would rewrite them, rewrite them to perfection; I could still remember, vaguely, a few spare phrases. I would relive the process on my page—every excruciatingly frustrating moment of it. I would hate it, but I could not leave it in a different state.

Down the spiraling vortex, I was falling, falling to the rhythm of my downfall’s prelude. My view was filled with images, replete with failure, self-degradation, diffusing books, clothes, papers—all falling by my side. Laughter rang in my ears, rattled my head, crept up my spine. I opened my eyes. White. Cold, white, desperate. Blankness extended for miles around. Onlookers presented themselves by the millions, but I found none in sight. I was falling through the screen—the screen that had engrossed my movements, dictated my thoughts, for an entire month’s duration. Inscribed across its vapid sky, I saw a word so terrifying, yet so coveted, that, if he thinks about it too long, a person might pursue it to insanity. Perfection. A title of ten, distinct letters spoke across the ages and moved worlds in its wake. Myriads of devoted followers were also falling for its sake. Though I saw them not, they were there; they crashed beneath the weight of their celebrated masks.


[i] Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.

vanessa chastain rivasVanessa Chastain Rivas is a nineteen-year-old student at New College of Florida, where she often worries that she is going to fail miserably. She is partially Venezuelan and started learning English, now her primary language, as a second language when she was three. She devoted half of her high school career to writing a book of poetry and prose that remains unpublished, followed by a second book of poetry that she began in her first year of college. In addition, she has ideas for a few novels and a philosophical memoir. This is her first publication in a literary magazine. She had a poem appear on the website Daily Love in September 2011, as well as a website of her own which, although she refrains from using it for publishing, can be accessed at www.butterflyspell.com/. This essay comes from her first unpublished writing collection.

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  • I so connect with this piece that it is almost unbelievable. Sad as it is, I’m very much a perfectionist too, and this resonates for me.

    “Destruction is what we, perfectionists, do best.”

    • I’m sorry to hear that. 🙁 🙁 When I read this at my school’s creative writing club in high school, a lot of people said the same thing as you, that they could relate. 🙁 To me, it’s a little disturbing that so many people can relate because the events that I talk about in this essay are really extreme cases of self-destruction caused by perfectionism. I’m sure, though, that most people haven’t reached this point. 

      What’s really tragic about perfectionism is how society seems to constantly demand it from us despite how unhealthy its results are. We always have to juggle around so many different responsibilities and carry them out as perfectly as possible. I feel it’s too much pressure and probably acts as a cause for many mental disorders… Honestly, we need to start asking ourselves if all of this destruction is really worth the effort.

  • Erick Chastain

    It is said how perfectionism claims the best of us. Sylvia Plath certainly, and more recently David Foster Wallace. Another great example of perfectionism is sir isaac newton, whose work on the calculus wasn’t published for many years after he did it because he didn’t want to release it until he thought it was perfect. This almost cost him a lot since Leibniz invented the calculus in the interim.

    Perfectionism is a killer. It has killed at least 5 of my papers. Hopefully I will stop letting it kill papers to come….