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  • Writer's pictureBella Sirpilla

A Recovering Perfectionist

Perfectionism, defined as the "refusal to accept any standard short of perfection," has been a constant theme in my life. Growing up, I was labeled as perfect by others, and I always made sure that I lived up to that expectation. It brought me success in various areas of my life, such as tennis and academics. But as I reflect on my journey, I realize that there needs to be a line drawn when it comes to achieving and meeting a goal.

In the fourth grade, I vividly remember not knowing ONE answer to a question on a Social Studies test. I knew that if I didn't pick the right multiple choice question, then I wouldn't receive 100%, and that made me spiral. My teacher pulled me out of the classroom and I cried relentlessly until she finally gave in and told me the answer. This incident demonstrates the immense pressure that I put on myself, even as a young child. When you are constantly labeled as perfect, it becomes difficult to accept anything less.

During my time as a biology major at High Point University, the demands were rigorous. I had to miss out on many social events because of my heavy workload and I didn't let anything get between my grades and me. I made friends in my science courses who could relate because they were also bummed to be missing out on certain events or parties. It was comforting to have people who understood the challenges of majoring in STEM and feeling isolated from friends in other majors.

Overall in college I was driven, involved, disciplined, but mainly focused. For me, the need to always get A's on tests was a necessity. This pressure intensified as I aimed to get accepted into dental school. I excelled in my biology and chemistry courses, so I stuck with it the science route. I didn't even consider changing majors because I was receiving A's in all of my science courses. I had one goal, and I didn't explore other majors because that would stray me away from my dental school path.

I found love for other subjects in some of my elective courses. A spark lit in me when I took two literature classes taught by the same professor, Michelle (Johnson) Huffman. My older brother, Beau, was two grades ahead of me at High Point University and encouraged me to take her class because he said it was awesome. I was always very insecure about my reading and writing skills and as a kid I had to get taken out of class to receive extra help. Professor Huffman referenced pop culture and food themes to encourage critical thinking in her classes. I found myself excited to write reports, instead of the dread that I felt when writing in high school. I would go to her office hours and she would go over my papers with me, give me constructive criticism, & and would always give me a confidence boost in regards to my writing skills. So I thought, what if I’m not a bad writer and I’m just a slow writer and need extra time to put my thoughts together? I am so grateful I went to High Point University because with the small class sizes, I wasn’t just another number. My professors knew me by name and truly cared about my success in their classes.

During my junior year, when I took a psychology class, I discovered another newfound interest. I was excited to go to my psychology classes and enjoyed sharing the information I learned with my roommates when I got home from class. Looking back, I wish I had pursued psychology earlier because I found it so fascinating.

I was aware of my weaknesses when it came to standardized testing, so I put immense pressure on myself to excel academically in the classroom. My goal was to get into dental school, and I believed that achieving perfect grades was the only way to prove my worth and intelligence. Despite being a slower learner, I worked incredibly hard and achieved outstanding results. I graduated with a 3.96 GPA, was a junior marshal (top 3% of my class), and gained acceptance into all five dental schools I interviewed for. This validation felt incredible, but it made me question why I had chosen dentistry as my career path in the first place.

During college, I began to volunteer for organizations that I genuinely cared about. My passion for helping others led me to participate in dental mission trips to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. As I provided dental care to those in need, I experienced a profound sense of fulfillment. Looking back, it wasn't just about dentistry; it was about connecting with the locals and doing something good for them without expecting anything in return. I believe the smile is the universal language around the world and these mission trips made me fall in love with helping others less fortunate than me. I had my doubts about dentistry as a career, but I felt like these mission trips encouraged me to stay in my biology courses and pursue being a dentist.

I started to question what I truly loved about school. Was it the joy of learning or the satisfaction of receiving an A and validating my intelligence? To gain a better understanding, I joined various clubs, mainly driven by the desire to wear the colorful chords at graduation. However, COVID-19 disrupted my plans, and I didn't get a traditional graduation ceremony. Nonetheless, when I returned to High Point, North Carolina to move out, I made sure to capture the moments with graduation pictures, proudly displaying all my cords & sashes

Reflecting on my high school self, I realized that I had chosen dentistry out of insecurity about my intelligence. I believed that people would perceive me as smart if I became a doctor. However, this need for perfection followed me to dental school, where I felt as though I couldn't afford to make any mistakes. If I did make an error, I would either ignore it or break down in tears.

However, leaving dental school gave me the opportunity to reassess my beliefs. I began to understand that mistakes are a part of life, and I should embrace them as learning experiences. This newfound perspective has allowed me to grow and evolve. If I had the chance to go back and advise my younger self, I would urge her not to place such overwhelming pressure on her shoulders. Getting all A's in school doesn't define your worth, and there is so much more to life than chasing perfection and perfect grades.

For the first time in my life, I took a break from school and took the time to heal and engaged in intense therapy sessions. Through years of therapy and positive affirmations, I can now proudly say that I am a recovering perfectionist. I have learned to let go of the fear of making mistakes, understanding that they are opportunities for growth and learning.

My journey has taught me that perfectionism can be all-consuming, restricting one's ability to explore, learn, and truly enjoy life. It is vital to find a balance between striving for excellence and embracing imperfections. As I continue to navigate through life, I am committed to focusing on personal growth, pursuing my passion for helping others, and embracing the journey, imperfections and all.

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