Dealing with perfectionism.

For the past year, I’ve been contemplating the concept of ‘the rest of my life’ since this year has marked the last of my studies, which has pretty much defined my existence so far. That sounds sad, but if anyone else is as big of a perfectionist as I am, the story I am about to tell you will probably sound all too familiar.

Studying has been my life because it’s the one thing I always knew I was good at (and note how I stay ‘studying’ rather than ‘academics’ because there is a huge difference in working hard to achieve good grades and being naturally intelligent). I’ve never not been able to try my absolute best when it comes to a piece of coursework or an exam. In theory, that sounds great because it means I put a lot of effort into my work and it often leads to a decent grade. However, here are just a few reasons why it is more insidious than it seems on the surface:

A) SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR DISAPPOINTMENT – Perfectionism usually affects people’s organisational skills in two different ways but with the common result that you are often left disappointed. You are either hyper organised in that you spend way too much time on tasks that you set yourself (e.g. spending an hour drafting a three-sentence long email to a colleague only for them to reply two seconds later) or you procrastinate because you don’t trust yourself to perform a task well enough until it is too late. This means you are often left unsatisfied – either because the time spent was not worth the result or the pressure means there is no result in the first place.

B) BECOMING A ONE TRICK PONY – Perfectionists often give up on things they enjoy simply because they aren’t ‘the best’ at them. This is a vicious mind-set because usually, the only way to become good at something is through practice. However, the temporary embarrassment of looking bad means you’ll often stop trying altogether. This acts as a double-edged sword because not only does it restrict your skill-sets as you end up doing fewer activities than your peers, but it also stops you enjoying the things you still do as everything becomes a competition.

C) HAVING LITTLE CONFIDENCE – This is probably the worst reason and is very much connected with A and B. Being a perfectionist tends to mean you overthink everything you do and because it takes you so long to accomplish tasks, it makes it hard to believe in yourself and to trust that you can succeed in the high-pressured environment that is life. Being so critical of yourself is also dangerous because it can lead to selfish behaviour. Sometimes, you can get so wrapped up in what people might be thinking about you that you ignore what they are actually saying, which is no help to anyone at all!

Perfectionism has literally affected every decision I have made in the past, but enough is enough. Studying has been my life, but now that my degree is over, I am determined to start living ‘the rest of my life’ with one goal in mind – bringing happiness to myself and to others. So, if like me, you want to rid yourself of the disease of perfectionism, let’s challenge ourselves to:

A) FIND A BALANCE – If you struggle with spending too much on time tasks, make a conscious effort to time yourself and cut down gradually e.g. when writing an email, note what time you start and finish writing it. If it takes you an hour, try and see if you can do the same thing in 50 minutes next time. After all, a small change in the right direction is better than none at all! Similarly, if you find it difficult to start tasks in the first place, why not break it down into smaller sections? A 2500-word essay may seem daunting to begin with, but if you tell yourself that you’ll only choose your title one day, write a plan the next day, do the introduction the day after etc., you’re more likely to get it done than if you tell yourself that you have to do it all in one go.

B) DO AN ACTIVITY THAT YOU KNOW YOU WON’T BE GOOD AT – University is the perfect opportunity to try new things and you should make the most of it while you still can. Whether it’s trying college lacrosse for the first time or joining a baking society – if you go in with the mindset that you’re there to learn rather than succeed, you’re more likely to enjoy yourself. After all, not only will you find other beginners who you can bond with about how rubbish you are, but also, any progress will count as an achievement as you can credit yourself with doing something that you never thought possible before.

C) THINK POSITIVELY – If you’re having a bad day and are getting angry at yourself, think about what you’d say to a friend if they were in the same situation. Often, when we hear our friend has a problem, we can think of a million solutions, but when we are in a bad way, we are too harsh on ourselves. In the words of RuPaul: “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

(This post was edited on 14/01/18 to showcase the article inspired by this post that was eventually published in St. Aidan’s College NSNTB in June 2017).

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