Setting yourself free of perfectionism?

Are you a perfectionist? I always thought I wasn’t, but my therapist introduced me to the idea of ‘functional perfectionism’ last year. This  forced a rethink, which I documented in this post where I wonder if perfectionism  is a spectrum disorder. One of the perfectionist traps I fall into all the time is unhelpful self talk, so when Gabriella sent me this post I knew that it would resonate with other perfectionists out there (and I know there are a few!).

Gabriella Wilson is currently a doctoral student at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, researching the visual language and presentation of activist art. She has a dark past working in the visual arts as an artist and gallery professional but has seen the error of her ways, and now finds herself immersed in the world of graphic design. She also tutors at the Queensland College of Art, assists at the design studio Inkahoots, and volunteers for Animal Liberation Queensland. To top it off she is mum to a beautiful daughter Elkie, and two fur babies Izzy and Tully. She is wife to the most patient human being on earth. Her goal is to communicate about social injustice and help shake things up a little. You can find a little more about Gabriella here.

I realised the other day, in the midst of a brutal surge of anxiety about my PhD, that I never fully commit… to… A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G…. UNLESS I am assured it will be successful. Mistakes? Phooey. Perfection. YES! Pleasing and impressing. YES! Life’s Journey in a straight line. YES!

I am a recovering perfectionist, as so beautifully coined in the book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by Tal ben-Shahar. A bit of a cheesy title, but a real winner in my books. It turns out I am a text book case. I had all the right ingredients in that cocktail shaker called childhood to create a delicate, sweet blend of self-loathing and perfectionism.

Mixed in was a swash of controlling, critical and sometimes violent (from Dad to Mum) parents. A really big dose of volatile and emotionally abusive parenting. A dash of loss and rejection, and a lingering terror. My early life was filled with it. Terror of my father and siblings, but the more subtle terror of making mistakes. Mistakes (failure) were dangerous. Life was dangerous. Emotions were dangerous. Like I said, TEXT-BOOK-CASE.

Fast-forward 40 and a bit years. The sometimes-debilitating terror associated with my PhD is not the first time in my adult life I’ve gone through this. Growing up believing your stupid, while simultaneously being ambitious and intellectually curious makes for an interesting headspace to do your PhD in – read – life can be messy.

I’ve gathered countless pieces of evidence that I am stupid. Every school report card reflected it. No-one (maybe because it was the eighties) seemed to notice that I was actually a very curious child. A great quality for intellectual pursuits. To help remind me of this paradox I’ve got my grade four report card on my wall alongside a photo of me in the Courier Mail. It’s a photo of me in the crowd at one of the mid-nineties protests over university funding cuts (doesn’t THAT seem funny now?), holding a sign I painted ‘Only the Educated are Free – Epictetus.’ I was at the tender age of 17 when I felt the significance of that quote. Stupid and worthless? Its debatable.

So, on this report card my teacher writes, “Gabriella is capable of better work. She’s inclined to dream and this affects the accuracy of her work. Gabriella’s reading difficulties hamper her progress in other areas.”

It’s true. I was capable of better work. But did anyone ask if I was ok? Did this teacher give me more help? Nup. Did I dream in class? Totally. I fantasied about all sorts of things that were far more interesting than what was happening there or at home. And its the most important quality I possess now. My ability to ‘dream’ i.e. to think laterally about a given problem, is my best asset.

Stick it grade four teacher.

Did my reading difficulties ‘hamper my progress’? Yeah for a time. But now, I’m a voracious (albeit slow) reader. Nothing is ever set in stone. But I still don’t understand why I didn’t get more help? Did I just annoy the shit out of every teacher whose path I crossed?

When the terror of failure hit yet again this year, and through my pounding heart I realised that I hadn’t fully committed, I thought f**k, not again. Really? Are we doing this again? Yes, we are doing this again. Life is going to get messier.

Through the mess though, I realised that when I undertook my postgrad degree I wasn’t truly interested in ‘contributing new knowledge’. I just wanted to make some cool shit, work out how to make the world a better place and begrudgingly write about it. I knew I would learn a lot – which is I guess what I wanted – but I didn’t really think through the line ‘unique contribution to knowledge”. Phooey.

I’ve always had one foot out the door at all times. I never fully commit. Right. Lesson one: BRING-THAT-FOOT-IN. Check. And when I sit with the commitment to finish, I also realise, to my deeper horror, that I need to accept the possibility of failure and that lifeis uncertain, hard, and there it is again – messy. Say WHAT? I need to accept that I may not attain my doctoral qualification? Either through an unannounced life event, or through my own terror, I might not make it to the end?

Rejecting this reality equals a world of anxiety and pain. If I don’t give myself permission to make a mistake and fail, then the internal monologue is “you have no choice, you MUST get this”. “You MUST succeed, because if you don’t, you’re worthless.” Panic ensues.

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. I’ve been hooked on the thought that I’m a piece of shit so many times that I just used to drink it away. Now, with great determination, I face it.

Lesson two: I work on what Tal Ben-Shahar suggests in his book and practice the acceptance of reality and the potential for failure. Check. I might not finish my PhD, but that doesn’t mean I am not a worthy individual, who won’t go on to find meaningful pursuits in life and thrive. As I know from that grade four report card: nothing is set in stone.

The last realisation to come out of the mess, and perhaps the more subtle but most important lesson is that my worth as an individual, if hooked onto external things like my PhD, a piece of paper, is bound to cause more mess and anxiety. I know that its more than that too. It represents hard work, intellectual rigour and an important contribution to knowledge. It represents passion and yearning for a better world.

BUT, I will try not to let the attainment of that piece of paper determine whether or not I make an important contribution to a better world, and I will try not to let it determine my ability for self-love and worth. I am worthy and loveable no matter whether I am Dr. Gabriella or simply Gabriella. And from the band Idles comes lesson three: ‘If someone talked to you, the way you do to you, I’d put their teeth through. Love yourself.’ Check.

For those of you who struggle as deeply as I do with your PhD journey, and with this thing we call life, I’m sending you love too.

Thanks for sharing Gabriella! What about you? Has this post resonated with your inner perfectionist at all? What advice would you offer others struggling to put the perfectionist beast back in its box?

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Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

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9 thoughts on “Setting yourself free of perfectionism?

  1. Tanya Davies says:

    I love this piece. Thanks, Gabriella for writing with such honesty. We do not talk about our vulnerabilities in pursuing a PhD, or probably in academic work more broadly (but I’m not there yet) and I feel that silence feeds various perfectionist tendencies. The anxiety that comes with the self-talk of (not) being good enough can be crippling, but unfortunately I think the efficiency measures placed on Universities and supervisors, the measure of success against time (completion within a timeframe) and attainment of the piece of paper dominates narratives of ‘success’ rather than on the progress made by working through the roadblocks, mistakes, failures, detours, challenges and difficulties that constitute the learning along the way. What we see in the journal articles we read and the presentations we attend are well worked and fully formed ideas and arguments, we do not see the struggle in getting there, and it is so important to remember this. I am in the final leg of my PhD, but it has not been an easy road filled with self-doubt and moments close to walking away, but I am very lucky to have a team of supervisors and mentors in my faculty who showed me ways to sit with uncertainty, who talk about the PhD as an internship, and who supported me to take intermission, to take the time I needed to refocus on what I have been trying to achieve – including, but also beyond attaining that piece of paper. Gabriella, I am sending you love in return for yours, and wish you all the best in finding ways to sit with failure. Afterall, failure is an integral part of moving beyond.

  2. Celeste Hill (@CelesteKO_O) says:

    Lovely and candid post Gabriella. I can relate. It’s taken me the entire first year of my PhD to work through the terror of ‘no guarantees’ and to face down the ‘demons’ that have taken one form or another through my life – but always carried the same message – “you are a stupid loser, your family is cursed and so are you”. I’ve grown – because I either had to grow or run away. I’m tired of running. Now I’m okay with no guarantees. I’ve accepted that those demons will be waiting in the wings to jump in front of me and scold “I told you so” whenever I screw up. Mistakes, struggle and even occasional stupidity won’t void my right to a voice in this world. I’ll speak and laugh and stuff up. Whatever. Maybe I’ll end up with Dr. – but that notion is bizarre to me. What is certain is that I’m getting to know some wonderful, amazing people. That’s enough for me right now. Thanks for your voice Gabriella XO

  3. Suzanne Kennedy says:

    Thank you for your courage in sharing you! I felt my life unfolding on the page as I read your blog post. So many painful hidden nooks and crannies to bring to the fore and do the hard work to untether myself from all that holds me back.
    I was especially intrigued by your experiences with not committing – I am a lifelong exhibitor of this behaviour and your piece as given me something to work with and on.
    Thank you for giving me hope as I illuminate my perfectionist dark-side and find my way out of the madness. Apparently, I need to read this book.
    In gratitude
    Suzanne

  4. bushhaven14 says:

    Such an authentic post Gabriella. Thank you for posting. What you said about the scars of childhood and schooling resonated with me. After eight long years, my PhD was conferred a couple of weeks ago. Just want to encourage you (and others), if you can, to complete your doctorate. So many times I was ready to chuck in the towel, having been plagued by perfectionism, shame, an unrelenting and harsh inner critic, depression etc. Also during my candidature, three of my older siblings died of natural causes; I lost my job after blowing the whistle on management; plus dealing with the fallout of that – corporate mobbing/bullying, the legal system… Through it all my doctoral studies (along with some good family, friends, uni supervisor, guitar/ukulele. and Cat Stevens) was my constant companion. It was only in the past six months or so, I found Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and it made a big difference to not only finishing the thesis but just being a happier person. Compassion for myself and others was the missing bit of the puzzle for me. Cognitive behaviour therapy and other treatments didn’t work because the harsh inner critic voice would use any treatment, counselling etc against me. Now I work on not only the things I say to myself but importantly THE WAY that I say it to myself (the tone). Can now see (with compassion) that my perfectionism, escaping, procrastination, passive/aggressive stuff etc etc were strategies to manage, regulate, and survive the real and perceived threats of childhood, adolescence, schooling (with corporal punishment, bullying, low expectations, mediocrity etc), dysfunctional family etc (the Threat System) as well as my drive to achieve in life (The Drive System). After decades of trying to ‘nut’ out my childhood, schooling etc, I’ve only just realised that the way out at least for me, is to not try so hard to work out why or fix me, but instead actively cultivate and nurture my Soothing System. Might sound obvious and a bit naff but I now work spend a lot more time exercising, meditating, looking after myself, being nicer to myself and others, doing things that make me feel safe, and cared-for so that I can regulate my actions and emotions in the Threat System and Drive Systems. Compassion Focus Therapy was developed by Paul Gilbert. This is a link that explains it better than me https://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-3-emotion-regulation-systems/ The other doctorate/life saver for me was a series of vlogs produced by Tara Brabazon the Dean of Graduate Research at Flinders Uni for You Tube. Tara has produced heaps of vlogs and she offers many practical ways that not only deal with getting you over the line to submit your PhD, but she confronts the personal/social pressures of doing a PhD with clarity and humour. Tara B might not be everyone’s cup of tea but here’s a link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZXL3YK2jko The last thing I wanted to mention was how it was only in the last year of my candidature that I actually worked out what my ‘new’ knowledge contribution was. Once I did, those new knowledge ‘gems’ became a huge and unexpected motivator for me because they were visceral and precious (not just to me but others) and I felt a sense of commitment and motivation to get those gems out there in the world. Anyhow, CFT and Tara B might not work for every person, but it helped me overcome perfectionism, procrastination (and a heap of other unhelpful things!). Just sharing these thoughts on the off-chance that it helps someone else. Best wishes and thanks again.

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