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, Medical school, Mental Health, Relationships, Sexual abuse

Am I Overreacting?

Suffering from anxiety, I often have to take a step back and assess whether I am overreacting to a situation or if my worries are justified. And taking that step back is difficult because I usually don’t know if I am simply ‘reacting’ to a situation or if it would be classified as potentially overreacting. It’s a thin line, and not an easy one to distinguish. What makes it all the more difficult is that the act of overreacting is very subjective. What’s normal for one person, may not be so normal for another person. For me, I hate to be perceived as having overreacted to something, so I usually have to check in with the people around me.

It was a lot easier when I had the opportunity to discuss issues on a regular basis with my counsellor. She usually put things into perspective for me from a more objective viewpoint and that made it easier for me to know if I was overreacting or not.

Since having finished my counselling sessions, things are a lot more difficult as there isn’t just the one person I can check in with. Now, I usually have to ask my family and friends about their opinions on the situation, and I usually gather a range of different viewpoints and make my assessment. If the majority says that I am justified to react in a certain way, then I usually go with the majority and vice versa.

However, my fear of overreacting has led to situations where I possibly haven’t reacted enough. These situations normally involve reacting to behaviour that makes me uncomfortable. As you can read on a previous post, I had trouble dealing with sexual abuse as a child and my fear of falsely raising an alarm overrode my instinct to seek help. Similarly now, I have come across a few individuals over my time at medical school who have made me feel uncomfortable but I wasn’t sure if it was significant enough to raise an alarm. The last thing I want to be is ‘the boy who cried wolf’.

One of these individuals was an older medical student who made me feel uncomfortable within minutes of meeting him by displaying quite controlling and intense behaviour towards me. I felt uncomfortable as he summoned me with a beckoning gesture, after which he expressed his desire to marry soon; a desperate bachelor. The closeness with which he was standing next to me also made me very anxious, almost as if I was trapped. In my head, alarm bells were ringing but when I mentioned this individual with a few friends, some told me that there was no reason for me to be scared of him, whilst others asked me, “Why didn’t you just slap him around the face?” It’s in situations like these when I still struggle.

Another similar situation which occurred more recently involved somebody from my year who I met on my medical placement at hospital. He showed an interest in me, and we started joking with each other within a few hours of knowing each other. He ended up asking for my Facebook details, and after we parted that day, he immediately started messaging me on Facebook. A few messages in, he asked for my Snapchat, which I gave, but I got the feeling that he was moving a little fast, considering I had only met him that day. The messages then continued on Snapchat all the way until a good night message. The next time I met him, he ended up divulging very private details about himself and his family, which I would personally only divulge to someone when I trusted them implicitly, e.g. a very close friend. He started to make jokes that made me uncomfortable like saying he’d steal my duvet from my room when he felt cold at night, and so on. The messages continued and I felt quite overwhelmed at this point. I received a phone call from a relative and he was still messaging me but I didn’t reply. After I finished the phone call, I saw that he’d already started apologising to me for unintentionally doing something wrong as I hadn’t been replying. I was a bit surprised, but still unsure whether this was all normal. I talked about this to a few friends. Some of my friends joked about it, saying he was clearly seeking more than friendship, but my best friend got worried and told me to be careful in case he was a stalker. This definitely made me anxious. I contacted another friend, telling him about the situation and that I was starting to feel creeped out, and when I told him who it was, my friend laughed it off and said I didn’t need to worry as he was pretty sure the boy was gay. I felt a bit stupid at that point for making such a big fuss, but I don’t feel as if it was completely unjustified for me to have felt overwhelmed and scared.

So what have I learnt from all of this? It is definitely worth taking a step back to assess if you’re overreacting but at the same time, there’s nothing more reliable than our instincts. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so the best thing to do is to react when your alarm bells are ringing. If you overreact, then you look stupid of course. But if you don’t overreact and things are as bad as they seem, the consequences may be even more grave unfortunately.