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.

#relationships, Medical school, Mental Health, Reality, Stress

Letting People Go

Letting people go is no easy feat. The closer you are to the person, the more difficult it becomes to move on. Whether it’s the end of a relationship, or dealing with a loved one moving away, it can leave us with immense feelings of loss. But letting people go can leave us feeling emancipated. The more we dote on lost causes, the more unhappy we become in life. Letting go and moving on is the only way we can escape the negativity and make our lives better.

One of the challenges in being able to “get over” someone is that often even after the end of the relationship, we may still encounter the person over and over again. And surrounding ourselves with reminders of the person often reignites our feelings and draws us back to the relationship. Possibly the most difficult part of overcoming the end of a relationship is withdrawing from the strong emotional dependence we have on the other person. Whether the relationship is romantic or non-romantic, we often rely on the other person on an emotional (and possibly physical level). And when things end, we lose our source of emotional strength. If I medicalised this, I would be calling this period the ‘withdrawal’ period – likened to the tortuous symptoms of weaning from an addictive drug. Medical weaning however takes place in stages, decreasing the dosage in increments until complete weaning occurs. However, the end of a relationship is often sudden. And to let go of the other person becomes extremely challenging.

It is possible however, just like everything else. In the earlier stages, to prevent “relapse”, it is often better to, as much as possible, isolate yourself from all things that may bring back memories and reignite feelings. This may involve removing or hiding away triggering objects and possessions, unfriending them on social media and avoiding messaging them altogether. It may seem a harsh step to take, but doing so usually helps during the difficult initial phase, and coming to accept the situation.

Distractions and spending time with other friends and family can be extremely rewarding. Engaging in new activities can help at this stage too. However it is important to make sure that you keep a good balance between social/leisure activities and being able to get on with work and necessary chores, as difficult as it may be.

With ample time, it becomes a lot easier and tolerable to think about the other person without triggering strong emotions. This may take a lot of time, possibly years, but you will get there through perseverance.

The saying that ‘people come and go’ could not be closer to the truth. Nothing is ever permanent. Although we may not realise it, we often end up in very toxic relationships which do us more harm than good. We don’t see it because our emotions for this person clouds our objective judgement. But if being around this person makes you ‘feel like crap’, it’s a pretty good sign that the person is toxic and you are better off letting them go. Of course it may not be as clear cut, but it’s worth thinking about and re-analysing your relationships.

I recently decided to let go of a close friend who I’ve known for 3 years. It was a difficult decision, but I realised that the relationship was very one-sided and I often ended up feeling more negative about myself following a conversation with this friend than I did before. The dynamic of the friendship had definitely changed over the course of the 3 years and after much deliberation, I decided that the disagreements between us were too great to recover from. And you know what? I feel so much better. I feel more confident and I feel free. Sometimes it’s just better to trust your instincts because no one knows you better than yourself.

So do it. Let them go.

Pressure, Reality

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy

Following the end of my counselling sessions this year, I thought I would discuss one of the main lessons I walked away with. At the end of my first counselling session, I was told, “You can’t make everyone happy. And trying to make everyone happy is what’s making you unhappy.” And it reminded me, funnily enough, of a quote by Robin Williams:

“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”

~ Robin Williams

Making others happy is a natural human tendency. For as long as I remember, I’ve always been the one in my family to keep everyone together, solve all our problems, and make everyone happy. I never saw any fault in that. In fact, seeing my family happy gave me a false sense of fulfilment. In some way, I’ve felt that my purpose had been to use all my efforts to stop the people around me from breaking down. But what I hadn’t realised is the toll it had been taking on me.

The main obstacle to thinking that I have to ‘fix everything’ or ‘please everyone else’ is that a lot of things are beyond my control. No matter how hard I try, I may not be able to do anything personally to resolve the situation. And by relying on others’ happiness for my sense of fulfilment was therefore highly impractical. My counselling sessions made me realise that.

I was also brought up by my parents to be anything but selfish. Hence, selfishness has to be the trait I most deeply detest, and in my efforts to make everybody else happy, I felt I was succeeding at not being selfish. But there should always be a limit to our selflessness. When we become so selfless and start living for the people around us, we can often lose or suppress our personal desires which hinder the formation of our identity and our growth towards independence. This is essentially what had happened to me. I have always done as my parents have told me to, because I thought it would make them happy. But I slowly realised that doing what others want me to do has never really made me happy. I lost sight of what I really wanted to do, and I ended up suppressing any desire I had which would object with my parents’ wishes, because I didn’t want to disappoint them for my ‘selfish’ causes.

My counsellor taught me that it’s ok to say no. It’s ok to be assertive. It’s ok for me to think about myself. It’s even ok for me to put myself first. I’m still working on getting that right, but I feel that I have made progress.

And you know what? I do feel happier doing the things I want. I finally feel as if I’m leaving my nest and discovering what kind of person I am, albeit at the age of 20.

It’s a start, but focusing on myself might just help me on my road to find happiness.