Friday Special: Perfectionism, Procrastination and Me
Welcome back to another Friday Special, a series where I discuss the more personal aspects of my educational story. In light of my recent return to full-time study as a research student, I wanted to chat about my experience of being a perfectionist, and how it’s impacted my degrees.
I’m not particularly sure where it started. I never had pushy or helicopter parents and was encouraged to do my best and take what I was given. I think though, after the disappointment of my A levels, I developed this half-nervous-half-confident psyche that I had to fully invest in my education as there was nobody to catch me this time. This seemed to elevate me to the status of being “that person”, who always had her essays done a week in advance, always got good marks and always seemed very nonchalant about it. If I’ve ever come across as arrogant, I’m either being funny, or I’m terrified. I’m glad to stay that my confidence (that I was initially faking when I arrived at Reading) has since materialised, but that doesn’t mean that my perfectionism isn’t twinned with a (sometimes crippling) fear of failure.
One of the main reasons I haven’t spoken about this previously is simply because I’m “that person”, and often I don’t feel like I deserve to struggle, because it always turns out well in the end. This has been a vicious cycle for me at times, and it has taken a lot of self-reflection over the past year to feel confident enough to express that I do fear failure, and sometimes there’s nothing I can do about it. It doesn't make me needy or attention seeking, it just means that I'm in touch with my feelings.
The manifestations of my perfectionism centre around “success” as it’s defined in academia. My essays are well-researched, I read way beyond the reading list. My planner is carefully curated with study, work and social time, with no double-bookings or unplanned days. I even meal plan nowadays, in order to stay healthy, save money and increase my productivity. These actions aren’t stressful to me, if anything they bring me peace, as well as the confidence that everything is going to plan, and that I’m doing well. I also engage with feedback, and am often the first to reach out for help and advice. That last bit might be more related to the failure thing, but having someone validate my feelings helps me to put my problems in relation to those of other people’s.
Procrastination occurs when I have moments of imposter syndrome, mental burnout or illness. I got very burnt out during the spring of 2020, as I was trying to write an essay about gender theory while the world was falling apart. I procrastinated away my time writing the damn thing, even though my research was complete and I had a six-page, handwritten plan, with feedback. Eventually, I wrote, edited and submitted within a seven-day period; the first time I had truly felt out of control. For someone that liked to get things done way ahead of time (so I had more time to critique my work), this revelation that I was struggling really threw me out of my comfort space, which was terrifying.
My MA dissertation was better managed in terms of timings, but the fear of failure began to creep in, especially in the last few days before submission. I remember very vividly editing a section in the early hours of the morning, lying down for an hour between five and six, and rising to continue. It was only after I submitted that I realised that these behaviours were not good for me, and I immediately made the commitment to put my mental health first. I wonder if the seed of self-doubt within me will ever go away, or whether it’s something innate or environmental that was picked up during my schooldays, and I have to learn to live with it.
My perfectionism has helped me to achieve so much, and has honestly been transformative in terms of my personality. I am more confident in my abilities than I was at school, and I actively seek self-improvement rather than waiting for it to happen automatically. I recognise my weaknesses and laugh at myself more than I ever did as a teenager. I’m outgoing, friendly and approachable, yet still eager to learn from those more experienced than me. I don’t think you have to be a genius to be a perfectionist, as I’m certainly not, as my GCSE Maths grades will tell you! However, finding a subject and a craft that I have a skill for has meant my perfectionism has driven me to work harder than I did when I had to dedicate my time to things I wasn’t so good at, such as French, Algebra or Trigonometry. If you’re someone who’s struggling to spread themselves thin, know that once you progress into the avenue where you have the most skill, life will get so much easier.
I know that I am lucky to have good mental health, and have actively made time to check-in on my feelings and work through them. I don’t think it was anything I was taught to do, instead it seems to have developed naturally as my mind became more focused at university. In May this year however, I did struggle with feelings of failure, as I didn’t secure the funding for my PhD that I’d applied for. I’m not someone who has ever won prizes (there was always someone better than me at school, I had a very clever year group), so I didn’t understand why this had upset me so much. I worked out that it was because I was pinning so much on it, as it (at the time) literally would decide my future in academia. After coming to this realisation, I grieved what I had lost and took time away from social media, and lent on my friends and family (shout out to all of you) for support.
As it turned out, fate intervened, and I’m sat here now in the silent section of the University of Reading’s Library. I’m not religious in any means, but so much of the direction of my life has been determined by tiny twists of fate, that I’m actually beginning to wonder if there is someone looking out for me somewhere. I don’t regret feeling sad about my future prospects, and have since learned that it was totally valid to be upset about it. I’m not spoilt, I’m not bratty, I just didn’t fit what they wanted. At the end of the day, I research Conservative Cabinet politics, so I can’t expect to be particularly popular, given the current situation.
My advice for anyone else that has perfectionism bubbling within them, is to channel it into productive, scheduled periods of your life, and let the rest of your life fall into place around it. I know some perfectionists are boring, introverted and generally a bit exasperating, and I’m glad I’m not any of those things. I feel stress of course, but work hard to push it into something tangible, and that makes it worth it. If feelings of procrastination are overwhelming, try and write down the reasons why you think you’re putting something off. Is it nerves? Excitement? Fear of failure? Sad something is coming to an end? This is just a small list, but once you’ve identified why you feel a certain way, you can begin to tackle it. Start short, and begin a task with a five minute timer, gradually extending the time that you are being productive. Get lots of fresh air, have some social time and get some rest, as there’s always tomorrow.
Anyway, thanks for coming to this Friday Special, and I hope it’s provided a bit of insight into why I am how I am. You might have identified with a few things in this post, and maybe you’re a bit of a perfectionist too! As much as I like writing advice for university students, it is nice to write about my personal experiences once in a while, so let me know if there’s anything else you would like me to cover.