Sword Fighting Perfectionism: On Mistakes, Failures, Self-Love & Forgiving Yourself

Overcoming rumination, reflecting on balance, battling mind games, and treating oneself with kindness

Carolyn Wang
6 min readMar 5, 2024
Photo by Designecologist on Unsplash

Thanks to A.C. & C.P. for the inspo :3

There is often a saying that “people are hardest on themselves.” And for good measure. That saying is true on so many fronts.

For a good lot of us, we’re lightning fast to forgive a sibling’s mistake, or quick to offer a hug to a crying friend.

But this isn’t always the way we treat ourselves.

When was the last time you made a mistake and failed? When was the last time you did something that didn’t meet your expectations? How long did it take for you to forgive yourself?

I pose this question, because personally, I’ve always found it easy to be “kind” and “forgive” myself when I know for a fact that:

  1. Circumstances aren’t under my control.
  2. I’ve done my best.

Lately, though, I’ve realized that being kind to yourself isn’t just about doing so when you can offer the space and capacity — when you feel like you’re “allowed” to forgive yourself because something is not under your control.

Being kind to yourself means forgiving and taking care of yourself even when you’re disappointed, sad, guilty, ashamed, or a combination of all of the above. It means doing so especially when you don’t want to and think that you don’t deserve it.

It means being kind to yourself, and forgiving yourself, even if you made a mistake for something that was particularly, definitely, completely, & most certainly under your control.

I find the distinction important, because I’ve realized that just because you know how to “be kind” yourself in certain scenarios, it doesn’t mean that you’re really kind to yourself in all scenarios. And a part of sword fighting perfectionist tendencies is to know how to stop ruminating over the “could have” scenarios when there indeed poses a plausible “could have scenario” that may have altered a course of past events.

Let me offer up a few personal examples for illustration:

An easier “I forgive myself” scenario:

I was surprisingly kind to myself throughout the college decision process last year, with any disappointment in college rejections dissipating after a few large bowls of ice cream, because I knew—internalized — even, the fact that:

  1. I’d done everything I could in my four years of high school.
  2. My future was determined from an arbitrary combination of hard-ass work, luck, the applicant pool, a whim of a college admission officer’s mood, and so many more factors that I had no way of controlling.

But not all things fall so neatly into the “it’s okay, since I couldn’t have done better anyways” category.

Take for example, my most recent mishap—which occurred during my first collegiate triathlon at Stanford Treeathlon in early March.

I’d been ecstatic about successfully completing my first race—that is, until the car ride home when I listened in on race results from my fellow teammates (who were much faster than me) and realized that my own race time didn’t make sense. Upon closer inspection, I made the horrifying realization that I’d misunderstood the race sign directions— which meant I completed only three bike loops instead of four and unknowingly cut my 20K ride to a 15K one.

In comparison to a whole future determined by arbitrary college admission officers making life changing decisions behind a black box, this mistake seems silly in magnitude. But knowing me, the fact that I not only botched my first race, but also effectively got credit for cutting it short, made me feel like an absolute nightmare. Even after I emailed the race organizers requesting a DQ (disqualification), I spent the next two days bashing my head and ruminating over the error because:

  1. I could’ve completely avoided it by examining the course map more closely ahead of time.
  2. I had this perfect mental image of finishing my first triathlon in triumph, and this mistake threw a “shadow” over it all.

While this was just a small example of where certain perfectionist tendencies and self-loathing kicked in full time, upon realizing that I defaulted to these thoughts so swiftly, I quickly took a 180 and began to reflect: Why?

Which is funny, because nothing brought the “why” more into perspective than a discussion I had in my Public Policy Analysis class at UC Berkeley. We were discussing a podcast called “Nice White Parents” and our class was sharing our high school experiences, when I effectively came, once again, to the realization that:

  1. Attending high school in the South Bay was an immense privilege.
  2. Attending high school in the South Bay was a bubble, and on equal fronts, a developmentally powerful AND cursed bubble at that.

I was lucky enough to avoid the South Bay’s immense, reputable pressure-cooker during my younger years because I lived elsewhere in elementary school, but secondary education here, in Silicon Valley’s bustling cocoon of success, owes itself to (1) expectations to have a near perfect GPA, extracurriculars, and all-things college profile-related that I’d say is arguably unseen anywhere else in the world, and (2) an unwavering pressure, even if not spoken, to achieve some crazy, exceptional kind of “Spike” in XYZ pursuit.

Which goes to show that always expecting perfection, 100%, flawlessness, doesn’t serve well when it’s self-care, reflection, and forgiveness that are sacrificed.

It’s easy to be okay with not being perfect when a situation doesn’t matter to you very much. But what I’ve learned, now that I’m out of this bubble and two semesters into college, is that it’s vital to learn how to adapt and accept things, even when you make a mistake on something that matters very, very much to yourself. Because it sets you free.

A lot of what I’ve been reading, observing, and listening to recently falls under ideas of treating yourself with kindness and practicing mindfulness in complementary with whatever goals you wish to achieve. I‘ll admit that my high school actually had a Wellness Center praising this idea, but I don’t think this idea ever truly blossoms until you find yourself in a scenario where learning to stop ruminating over mistakes, forgiving yourself, treating yourself kindly, and living in the present becomes so surprisingly applicable—and important.

My mom called me recently, worried out of her mind, because of information circulating around South Bay circles regarding unhappy college Computer Science undergraduates at high-stress places like Princeton, CalTech, and UC Berkeley CS/EECS, which were all mentioned explicitly by name.

As I’m writing this article, I can certainly see why. My roommate (EECS major) and I (CS major), who both came out from the same high school, had this conversation one day: Do you know of any EECS/CS Berkeley kids who are happy?

As we tried to list off names, we started laughing, because there certainly was a clear distinction between two groups we’d observed on campus: One that seemed to be embracing a life of balance, goals, hard work, and hobbies, and the other that seemed to be neglecting all forms of self-care, social life, and hygiene (seriously) in the pursuit of unrelenting, pressurizing perfection. As if the lingering grind of high school never left.

I’ll admit that Berkeley CS culture is intimidating, but what I’ve come to see is that so much of the experience revolves around what you make of it and who you surround yourself with— including the very specific you that you surround yourself with. Do you treat yourself with kindness, practice forgiveness, and strive for balance—which tends to attract others of the same nature? Or do you treat yourself like a load of garbage being grinded day-after-day into smaller and smaller pieces, driving yourself insane whenever you lose even one point in — god forbid—XYZ class?

Because let me tell you — it matters. And while I’m still discovering the ins-and-outs myself, what I’ve learned in the last decade is that it doesn’t ever hurt to treat yourself kinder, learn how to forgive, and use failures as stepping stones and lessons learned. In the process, you may or may not have to destroy the ideal, perfect painting of your life (whatever that may be), but choosing balance and happiness in conjunction with your goals is always worth loads more than bashing yourself over and over again. ❤︎



Carolyn Wang

CS, Stats, + PPL @ UC Berkeley. Writer, musician, triathlete, & explorer. More about me: carolynwangjy.medium.com/ae3eb5de2324