Mental Health

The Imperfection of Perfectionism

***Just to start off with, I sincerely apologise for my lack of posts recently – I have been quite overwhelmed with some personal issues as well as exam stress, but I’m back again!***

Being a medic at one of the UK’s top universities, the competition to do extremely well in everything I attempt to has unintentionally become quite destructive to my mental health. And it’s not only me – my peers and colleagues at medical school are most definitely guilty of having perfectionist personalities, having all attained full sets of perfect A* grades in their exams prior to coming to medical school. It’s because getting into medical school is such a difficult feat that participating in the competition to get a place shapes you into becoming unrealistically high-achievers.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with being a high-achiever. In fact, it is extremely admirable because so few people have the determination to do well and keep pursuing their ambitions. But there is a fine line between pushing yourself towards your goals and beating yourself up for not achieving an unrealistic target. And that’s what I wanted to talk about today – the ‘imperfection’ of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is defined as the ‘refusal to accept any standard short of perfection’. This could be with regards to any aspect of life, be it grades and academics, the way you tidy your clothes or the way your body looks. Though it is probably not completely environmentally caused, there is a significant amount of external influence in setting up these mindsets amongst ourselves. From parental influence, to peer pressure and social media, the journey to achieve perfection can become an obsession.

But why is it a bad thing? Surely if you have A*s in all your exams, are meticulously organised and can brag about a size zero body, you’d be the happiest person in the world, right? Wrong. Here’s a diagram to help explain what happens to perfectionists:

Related image
[Image credit: https://bitesizebio.com/517/perfectionism-are-you-on-the-downward-spiral/]
When our goals are attainable, perfectionism isn’t so much of a problem. For example, if I wanted to go up a grade in a subject in a year’s time, that might be a realistic goal provided I put in the work. When our goals are unattainable however, or just unrealistic given the timescale and effort we are able to give, perfectionism can make us criticise ourselves for not having achieved what we wanted to. As the cycle above shows, when an unrealistic self-expectation is not achieved, we fall into a spiral of self-blame which reduces our motivation (as we start asking ourselves “what’s the point of trying if I can’t do well?”) and therefore our productivity. After a while, we set ourselves another set of unrealistic goals towards which we start forcing ourselves to work, and the cycle goes on.

I never really thought much of my perfectionist nature until I got to medical school. It never really did me any harm before because, as obnoxious as it may sound, I managed to achieve the goals I set myself with regards to academics. I had perfect grades and got into all the medical schools I applied to. In short, I hadn’t really experienced “failure”. When you get to medical school, the cohort of students you are ‘competing against’ in the end of year exams are incredibly intelligent with an average IQ far exceeding the norm. In conditions like these, it is almost impossible for most students to achieve the >95% they expect of themselves in the exams. I went from getting these high grades in school and sixth form to just about scraping a 40% pass in my exams. Whilst many might say that it’s not too much of a big deal since I did manage to pass, there was no way I could convince myself that it was good enough. And I am not alone in feeling this way – the majority of students in medical school experience the same drop in grades. And it does damage our self-esteems.

For me, the external influence was always my parents. Being of Asian origin, I had the stereotypical parents who would scold me for “only getting 98% in my maths test” whilst growing up. But once I got into medical school, they became incredibly relaxed and told me that I didn’t need to worry about my grades anymore, and if I failed an exam I could always re-sit it in the summer. Whilst this was a strange feeling and should have liberated me, I was so habituated to getting 100% that I couldn’t cope with the idea of not being the best. So when I didn’t do as well as I wanted to, I felt really really useless. I felt as if I wasn’t good enough for medical school (even though I did get a comfortable pass) and that there was no point in me trying. In short, it made me extremely unhappy.

It was from then on that I realised that I needed to stop trying to be perfect all the time and be happy with trying my best, because that’s all I could really do. So instead of shutting myself up and constantly working, I decided to lay back a bit more and enjoy myself. It’s all about finding the right balance and not comparing yourself to the people around you because we’re all different. Sure, it takes a long time to mentally accept that, but when you do, you really do find happiness in yourself.

So let’s stop pursuing perfection, when there really isn’t anything perfect about it to begin with.

Anxiety, Mental Health, Pressure, Reality, Stigma, Stress

The Epitome of Self-Deprecation

It’s difficult when the person you despise most is yourself. I find myself to be someone who always sees the good in everyone around me, but I fail to do so when I reflect on myself. People often compliment me, but the voice in my head tells me, “It’s not true, they’re just being nice”. There was a time in my life where I used to outwardly reject compliments thrown my way, but I soon realised that people often misunderstood me for being rude when that was not my intention at all. So now, out of politeness and to meet others’ expectations, I smile and say “Thank you” in response to any compliment I get, even though I don’t believe it.

I’ve pretty much always had a very low self-esteem. It’s because I’m a perfectionist and achieving my incredibly unrealistic goals is the only thing that gives me a sense of accomplishment. I always find faults in myself and always find targets to work towards. I subconsciously compare myself to others and convince myself that I am not good enough. The worst thing is, however, I also tend to criticise things about myself that I can’t modify. And that is even more demoralising for me.

I never really questioned my perfectionism until a few years ago when I started medical school and it became almost impossible for me to be the best at everything. All of a sudden, I was not achieving the goals I was setting for myself and I started believing that I was hopelessly not good enough. Despite the fact that I was studying at one of the best medical schools in the world, I was not good enough. I was not smart enough. And I felt increasingly worthless.

Aside from academics, I have always had issues with my image, from my looks to my weight. And especially at a stage when I thought I was failing academically, these insecurities became even more pronounced in myself. I was scared of looking at my reflection in the mirror. I started using a lot of make-up to cover up my ‘imperfections’. I tried to lose weight, but that’s something that has been and is still a challenge for me. With my depression, my appetite is all over the place. When things get really bad to suicidal point, I neglect food completely. When my mood picks up a little again and to cheer myself up, I tend to binge eat. And that’s why my weight doesn’t budge despite my gym efforts and diet plans. To make things more complicated, I have a very common condition called PCOS which makes it difficult for me to lose weight, and a few of the tablets I take for some other health problems also make it harder for me to lose weight. Being depressed also means that my motivation is at its lowest and without seeing any results after putting in the effort, I feel more demotivated and give up.

I realise however that it’s not really these materialistic things that matter. I can’t help how I look, and perfectionism is a bit of a tall order. But I feel as if I have believed in it for so long, I’ve wired it into my brain that I am just not good enough, or worthy. Some days, I wake up and I encourage myself to feel confident in my own body. It works, but it wears off very quickly. It’s a work in progress and maybe one day, I’ll really be confident. I love everybody else, but I have trouble loving myself.

I know that there are a lot of people who feel the same as I do. There are a lot of factors that contribute towards this, namely environmental influences, parenting and societal pressures. But I do believe that we are not stuck in this way of thinking about ourselves. We are each of us unique and beautiful, albeit not in the ways modelled by society per se, and we have every right to love ourselves for who we are. It’s time we took a step back and cut ourselves some slack, because we most definitely deserve it.