The Tetris Trap: How Perfectionism Reinforces Student Struggles

Sahana Lowy ’26 in Opinions | May 26, 2024

As I sat down to do my homework and opened Tetris for the hundredth time today, my friend’s voice chimed in behind me with a snarky comment: “Wow, you SUCK at Tetris.” Hurtful? Yes, but admittedly, true. The rude awakening was a necessary step toward confronting my flaws by truly looking at myself in the mirror. I did, indeed, suck at Tetris. However, the question I needed to ask myself was Why? Why was I so bad at Tetris? I realized that every time my block went in the wrong spot or my progress would devolve into a pear-shaped mess, I rebooted the game. I never gave myself the chance to recover or salvage my mistakes.

In life, one cannot just ‘reboot’ and start fresh. Instead, when we make a mistake, or even fear making one, oftentimes we simply never start. Perfectionism, the desire to be infallible, stilts our progress and cuts our legs out from under us. At a school like Lawrenceville where overachieving is the norm, perfectionism can be debilitating—But how can we expect to improve if we stop the moment things don’t go according to plan? Paralyzed by the fear of being less than the best, we either stop trying or work ourselves into the ground to reach perfection. This ‘fear of failing’ presents a black-and-white perspective—there is nothing between perfect and worthless. If we don’t afford ourselves any grade, then we don’t give ourselves a chance. Perfectionism is often mistaken for ambition; the desire to be the best at any given pursuit. But what sets it apart from ambition is the towering feeling of inadequacy that often accompanies perfectionism. At Lawrenceville, that can feel like obsessing over a couple extra points on a test or never playing enough minutes in a game—never being “good enough”. This unreachable standard makes perfectionism so hard to recover from; when our desire to be great comes from a place of inadequacy, we will never be satisfied. We tie our self-worth to perfection and forget that every moment we fail to achieve “perfection” chips at our sense of self and worth. 

At Lawrenceville, we can easily assume our academic accomplishments encapsulate the quality of our character. Surrounded by high achievers who seem to excel effortlessly, we fall into the trap of equating our worth as people with our successes. However, humans are inherently imperfect. Yet, when we experience moments of failure, fluctuations in athletic performance and test scores, or repeatedly make mistakes, we tend to blame ourselves and hold ourselves to inhuman standards. If we acknowledge that humans are inherently imperfect and inconsistent, we might reframe our "failures" as basic facets of the human condition, thereby deconstructing our impossible standards. After all, our imperfections and failures make us unique and relatable. Through our struggles, we develop empathy and compassion, understanding that each of us has our battles. Recognizing our imperfections allows us to build authentic connections with those around us by employing the empathy we create throughout the struggle. When we embrace our vulnerabilities and share our challenges, we facilitate an environment where others feel safe to do the same. This sense of community and mutual support can be incredibly powerful, fostering a culture where growth, rather than flawless performance, is celebrated.

Cultivating a culture of support and encouragement within our community can alleviate the pressures of perfectionism. If someone asked me to describe any one of my friends, I would start with Sophia’s jokes or Martina’s hugs, not the classes they take or their performances in the sports they play. If we don’t judge others by their accomplishments, why can’t we extend that same grace to ourselves? It's easy to become your own harshest critic, focusing on your shortcomings and ignoring your strengths. However, treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would offer a friend is the antidote to perfectionism. When we acknowledge our efforts and give ourselves credit for trying, we create a supportive inner dialogue that encourages growth and resilience. This shift in perspective can help us confidently move forward, even when things don't go as planned.