For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked pupils, alumnae and staff to share their thoughts on mental wellbeing. In this article, former Head Girl, Emma, shares her thoughts and experiences on the perils of perfectionism – something she will be delivering a talk on to pupils as part of our week of activities.
Anyone who’s been for a job interview will no doubt have come across a question similar to this one: ‘Can you describe a time when you failed at something and explain how you dealt with the situation?’
For anyone new to interviewing you might think, as I once did, that failure is always a bad thing and that struggling to provide an example to such a question is, therefore, a good thing. But I’ve since learnt that’s really not the case.
Perfectionism isn’t the positive flaw everyone thinks it is. Sometimes, it’s just a flaw. And I’ve learnt the hard way that resilience doesn’t come from never failing, it comes from being human.
Throughout my school career I was always putting pressure on myself to do the best, be the best and achieve the best results. I had such high expectations of myself that I gave myself a hard time for anything that was less than perfect. But because nobody can be perfect I ended up giving myself a hard time on a regular basis – even though I was achieving good grades.
I also found it difficult to say no to things – thinking that I should be able to manage everything adequately and if I ever mooted the idea that I couldn’t cope with additional work or responsibilities it would be seen as a weakness. This is another myth.
When it comes to perfection there are two main types: Self-perpetuating perfectionism (where you’re really harsh on yourself and feel a relentless need to perform at an extremely high level) and socially prescribed perfectionism (where you perceive a pressure from others to perform at an extremely high level). The latter is the kind of perfectionism I struggled with.
I assumed that everyone expected me to be perfect, but in reality, that really wasn’t the case. And besides, if we never say no to anything, how can we assume that others will see it as a weakness?
There’s also a mindset you can adopt whereby you believe that always striving to achieve over and above what is expected is a good thing – but this can have a detrimental impact on our mental health and our happiness.
When I was in school I never wanted to let anyone down and found myself saying yes to everything, even if I already had too much on my plate. I couldn’t drop the persona of always being willing, able and successful in everything I did. In fact, if I was asked to do something I wouldn’t even check my schedule, I’d just say yes because no wasn’t an option in my head.
It got to the point that I was carrying a very unhealthy level of stress because I never felt able to tell anyone that I was struggling. I was sitting four A Levels, I had the responsibility of being Head Girl and I was playing in different sports teams too. I loved doing all that and am grateful for all the opportunities I had during school but, when I look back, I think I’d have had more fun if I learnt how to delegate or share some of my responsibilities more often.
The problem is, how can people support you if they don’t know you’re struggling in the first place? This is why I wanted to give a talk on the perils of perfectionism for Mental Health Awareness Week, because I want others who might be going through what I did to know that it is absolutely OK to tell someone that you can’t take any more on or that you didn’t do so well at something. It is absolutely OK not to be perfect!
Back to that interview question…
I was so afraid of failing that, for a long time, I never allowed myself to. But it’s exhausting living up to that constantly and eventually, you will fail and you’ll have no idea how to deal with it.
While at university recently I failed a piece of coursework. It wasn’t a significant piece and was worth only a minor fraction of my overall grade, but nonetheless I became so angry with myself, thinking it was the worst thing in the world to have happened. I felt so embarrassed because I had this idea in my head that everyone saw me as the girl who never failed.
I took this bump in the road far too seriously until eventually I stopped myself and thought ‘Emma, pull yourself together. Degrees are difficult and you failed a tiny part of it. That’s life.’
The most important thing that I’ve taken from this experience is how I eventually moved on from it. How I realised the insignificance of it in the grander scheme of things and was able to be kinder to myself. At the end of the day, if you’re under too much pressure or you’re really not happy, you’re not going to be in the best mindset for writing your next piece of coursework or sitting your next exam.
Perfectionism is unhealthy and it inhibits your resilience. How can you bounce back if you’ve never failed at anything? And I think that’s why the failure question always comes up in job interviews – because it’s actually a really good thing to have turned a situation around, to have learnt from it and grown from it – rather than beating yourself up over it. It’s valuable to learn how to fail well.
Plus, what at the time might feel like failure isn’t always a bad thing in the long-run. I’ve friends who didn’t get into their first choice university and at the time felt devastated. If you speak to them now they’ll tell you how they wouldn’t change a thing – because they love their course, they love their friends and they love the university they’re at.
Experiencing failure has made me a lot better at dealing with it, and I know now that accepting failure is a positive thing. Yes, strive to be your best self, but don’t strive to be perfect – because you’re striving for the impossible.
Give yourself a break. At the end of the day, the happier and healthier you are, the more likely you are to succeed.