Growing Pains: From Perfectionism to Self-Acceptance featuring Nina Vo | Upward Together Podcast

Growing Pains: From Perfectionism to Self-Acceptance featuring Nina Vo | Upward Together Podcast

On this episode, I had a conversation with my friend Nina Vo, and we touch upon the idea of “growing pains”, especially as we navigate our young lives. We talk about the courage it takes to change course, the importance of self-compassion, and how self-love and acceptance can become the new benchmarks for personal growth. My reflection is below. Enjoy.

An aside: Nina and I know each other because we had the same host family in Copenhagen a couple years apart. My host family and I still keep in touch and they had told me they were hosting a new student. I got jealous. I visited Copenhagen (not because I was jealous) while she was studying there and I met her. We are now the closest of friends.

Growing up can be hard. I am 24 now, and I definitely have felt like my 20s have been quite challenging. While my 20s have been a time for self-discovery, freedom, and exploration, it has also been a time of existential stress, trying to figure out what I’m meant to do with my life. Not to mention that it feels like everyone around me seems to have their life figured out. I know that’s not true, but it still feels like that. Nina expressed she felt similarly.

“It doesn’t help when you’re looking around you at other classmates who have graduated and are doing big things. Starting their full-time jobs…going straight into medical school…chasing that bag. And then there’s me…not being 100% sure where I’m going. It just felt like I was behind in the rat race.”

I have always felt this immense pressure to figure out where I’m supposed to be going, so that I can pursue my purpose and achieve something great. And as the days go by, and I get older, my anxiety over the idea of living an unsatisfactory and unfulfilling life continues to increase, which is exacerbated by the fact that I don’t even know what would make it satisfactory and fulfilling. I almost always feel this strange sense of emptiness, as I struggle to find my place in this world. And I feel like I’m falling behind.

I’m not making life any easier on myself either. Along with the need to do something meaningful and achieve my purpose, I also feel the need to be perfect. And these two desires act at odds with one another. My inclination towards perfection paralyzes me from doing anything that I’m not perfect at (which is everything). And because I prevent myself from doing everything, I deny myself the ability to figure out what I am meant to do. This only leads to more anxiety and more dissatisfaction. Of course, when I say I don’t do anything I’m not perfect at, I don’t mean that I do nothing. It means I do nothing fully, with all of my heart and soul, for fear of finding out that all of me is not good enough. In short, my emptiness is fueled by my own contradictions. 

What does perfect even mean? To not be good enough means that I am comparing myself to something that I believe is good enough. To feel like I am falling behind means that I think we’re in a race and that others are ahead of me. Theodore Roosevelt (hopefully correctly attributed) said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I am living proof of that. Where does this come from? Why do I feel the need to compare myself to others and to be perfect? Nina came up with this answer for herself:

“Being the first born immigrant daughter on both sides of my family, I was put on a pedestal. I felt I was the lighthouse for future generations. I felt growing up, in order to be deserving of love, care and attention, I had to be perfect.”

Nina and I are both the first person in our family to be born outside of our families’ home country (Vietnam and the Philippines, respectively) and in the United States. I really want to dive into what it’s like being a first-born, first-generation Asian-American in another piece, but I had felt, and continue to feel (although I’m a bit better now), the same things she did. There was always this expectation, explicit or not, that I was to be the shining example for my family. From the moment I can remember, I was always put in a place of comparison. I had to be the best. I had to be perfect. And because I was expected to be the best, I was never celebrated for anything I did right (because it was expected), and always criticized whenever I fell short. And because perfection is, well, perfection, I always fell short. As such, I never felt good enough.

Before I continue, I just want to say I completely understand why I was raised this way. Being raised in the Philippines is vastly different from being raised in the United States. Life was objectively tougher for my parents. They had to work extremely hard in unfavorable conditions to get to where they are now, with no guarantee that the work would yield any results. Not to mention they had to leave behind their entire family. Because of their efforts, they bore a son who did not have to experience any of the struggles they did. Their expectations of me were the same expectations they had for themselves, except that I was put in a much more favorable position to achieve things our family could have never previously imagined, and I was expected to take advantage of that. My parents got us to the United States. It was my job to make sure we flourished. Like I said, an immense amount of pressure, but I can no longer blame my parents for that. I can only celebrate and express deep pride in what they did to ensure their family could live a better life. It took me a while to understand the sacrifices they made, but now, I am forever grateful.

However, as I grew older, that sort of mindset became ingrained in me, and I reinforced it within myself. Even if no one else was judging or being critical of me, I took the role of judge and critic towards myself and everything I did. While this way of thinking came from outside of me, continuing to think this way is solely my responsibility. Before you think I’m being too hard on myself, it’s this personal accountability that becomes the impetus for change. I can either continue to lament and complain about what others have done to me, or I can take ownership over my life and start to change that.

“I have to acknowledge that I’m a perfectionist. I’m so indecisive because I just want to be good at the thing that I want to do. I’m working on that and that’s a growing pain…I have to remind myself every single day, ‘If I don’t finish this and I pivot and pursue something else, would it be the end of the world? Will all eyes be on me?’ The answer to that is no.”

And I love how Nina said that. She’s acknowledging something about herself, but she’s also working on it. While what she is acknowledging might have come about because of something outside of her control (her life circumstances), she is choosing instead to work on what she can control. Who she is is not who she always has to be.

So let me acknowledge something about myself. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know exactly what I want to do. I want to be perfect. As a result, I feel empty.

And now, for the work that only I can do. 

If perfection is the benchmark, then I will never be good enough. So, I will either never be good enough for my entire life, or I let go of perfectionism. I also don’t want to say that the benchmark should be to be better today than I was yesterday, because that still leans into the idea of comparison. But I still want to improve and work on myself. So if not perfection or comparison, then what is the new benchmark? What do I pursue to live a life that is full and content, if not measuring myself against something?

I think the answer is self-love. Rather than see myself relative to perfection, I want to accept myself for who I am. Instead of needing to know where I’m going or what I want to do, I want to be content with where I am and enjoy figuring it out along the way. In therapy, we focused on the idea of radical self-acceptance, fully embracing who I am and loving every part of me, imperfections and all, without judgement, without comparison. 

It’s also about challenging how I talk to myself. Nina said this about how she talked to her students:

“Instead of saying ‘Don’t run,” you ask them to walk instead. Instead of saying ‘Stop yelling,’ you say, ‘Please use an inside voice.’”

It’s more effective to guide them than to admonish them of where they fall short. Letting them know what not to do does not tell them how to improve, only that they were doing something wrong. I want to have that sort of dialogue with myself. Instead of only being judgmental and critical of myself, I should gently nudge myself in the right direction. Rather than say, “I am not good at this,” I want to say, “Here’s what I will work on to become better at this thing that I want to get better at.” For example, instead of, “Don’t be bad at the piano,” which might lead to me not playing the piano at all, I should say, “Try practicing for a little bit each day and celebrate the small improvements.” Over time, the improvements will add up and the first statement won’t even be true anymore! And even if it is true, and I am still bad at the piano, that’s not what matters anyways. What matters is that I enjoy what I am doing and accept who I am and appreciate where I am at.

There’s no quick fix, especially for things that are so deeply ingrained in us. Work is hard and unlearning is gradual. I might not see how much I’ve grown until much later. But that’s not for the present me to be concerned with. All I can do is put my head down and do what I can in this moment.

I accept all that I am today. I urge tomorrow me to accept all that he is tomorrow. And if I do that every day, I will end up where I need to end up. I want to trust in that. This is how I want to grow up.

Nina, your vulnerability has helped me grow as a person. Thank you for going upward together with me.