Perfectionism as a Bully

I’ve been thinking about the comment I left on Olivia’s blog ‘We Got So Far To Go’, aboout “realistic expectations” and how mine are but a shadow of their former selves. Realistic expectations for me as an undergrad included me pulling 8 hrs of revision a day for 5-6 days a week during the exam period, which usually lasted about a month, and submitting every bit of coursework on time. I’m currently not really capable of that. I used to be able to write a 2000 word essay in two or three days, some of that time including all the necessary reading, but not any more.

Thus, when I worked out my plan for getting my Intro written in time for my deadline in January, it entailed me writing 500 words a day, 5 days a week for 4-5 weeks. It seemed so sensible but in the first week of that plan I wrote… no words. None. I couldn’t face sitting down to write.

The massive irony being I can churn out a 1000+ word essay on my blog in the space of an hour.

Thing is, there’s a massive difference between the writing I do on my blog and the writing I have to do for my Thesis. My blog writing is stream-of-consciousness with a quick proofread at the end for 5-10 min. It is what it is because my thoughts are my thoughts. There’s no right or wrong. It’s not going to be graded. My whole future life does not depend on it being written well. My Thesis writing on the other hand has to be: correct, accurate, specific, precise, conscise and referenced. I am going to have to defend it in a 4-5 h oral interview with two experts in related fields, known as the Viva. My Introduction sets the tone for my whole thesis and a well-written one can make up for any slight deficiencies elsewhere. It’s supposed to show off how much you know and how intelligent you are. In other words, it’s a fucking big deal.

You can see how that kind of pressure fucks a person up, yes?

Consequently the techniques I’m working on with my counsellor are derived from behavioural activation therapy. Elodie’s guest post over at Captain Awkward on breaking the low mood cycle by, shock horror, Doing Things, describes it well. It works on the premise that you can change how you feel by doing stuff you know will make you feel a) relieved that it’s done, b) less stressed now that you habitat is a bit more pleasant to be in, c) a bit more relaxed because you’ve done something nice for your self, like having a bath, playing with the cat, going for a walk or painting your nails, or finally d) a sense of achievement that you’ve done the thing you dreaded!

We worked on breaking my thesis tasks into manageable ones. So my to do items like “write 250 words on topic x, times by three so I’ve written 750 words today” became “write three sentences on section x”.

Why? Because the task: “write sections x and y” filled me with dread. It gives me a sinking feeling in my stomach, brings my shoulders up to my ears and makes my throat feel all tight. And then my brain runs off down the path of “this is too big. I can’t do it. I don’t know where to start. It won’t be good enough. I’ll never make my deadline. I’ll fail my PhD!!!” i.e. it runs down a list of increasingly worse problems to the ultimate horror: Abject Failure.

So if what I need is to promise myself I’ll just write three sentences and then I can have a break, that’s what I’m going to do.

Three sentences isn’t a lot, after all. And even if I don’t know exactly what I need to say, I can still write a few sentences for now, that I can work on later once I’ve looked some things up. In doing this, I can head off the worst-case scenario thinking at the first pass.

That give me a fighting chance of getting into the swing of things. Because the likelihood is that once I’ve written a few sentences I can probably finish the paragraph. And even if I can’t finish the paragraph, well at least I can tick “write three sentences” off my list and feel some satisfaction as a consequence.

It’s at this point that my old friend Perfectionism starts knocking on the door.

“Three sentences? That’s pathetic! You’ll never finish the PhD at this rate. You know you’ve got all that other stuff to do as well, right? That final results chapter? Which you haven’t even done the figure plan for yet even though it’s due today? You still have to integrate the experimental work and the modelling sections, and you need to have the Intro written by the middle of January! There’s not enough time. It’s not going to be good enough. *You* are not good enough. You can’t do this. You’re never going to get it all done. You’re going to fail! And then where will you be? You’ll end up working in Tesco’s for a pittance. Your old school teachers will be so disappointed. Your family will be disappointed, they’ll be too polite to say anything but you’ll know they’re lying when they say they’re not.”

Ad nauseam.

That’s just a sampling of the things my Perfectionist self says.

And you know what? She thinks she’s helping but she is actually so unkind. I wouldn’t want to be her friend, and I certainly wouldn’t say those sorts of things to my friends. In fact, I *know* I don’t. I encourage them with kind words of support and love, because I think they’re awesome, lovely people who deserve good things, and if they need moral support in a difficult situation, I am right there by their side. With wine, chocolate and an episode of the Muppets as necessary. When they think they can’t do something because it’s too difficult, I remind them of what they’ve achieved so far and I commiserate about all the difficult, unpleasant feelings that come with it.

So why am I so mean to myself? Why do I tell myself I’m no good at *this*, whatever this is? Why do I tell myself I *can’t* do this when things get difficult?

Because, as much as I say I was a good student at undergrad – and I was, I have the grades to prove it – essay and coursework writing was never an easy affair. I can remember with horrifying clarity the late night Thursday panics when an essay was due at Friday lunch time. I recall how I basically wrote my entire 8,000 undergrad lab project dissertation in just five days, with precious little sleep. This happened because I procrastinated my way to glory until there really wasn’t enough time left to finish it. I remember one particular essay in second year which was so bad I went downstairs crying to find one of my housemates, and stood, sobbing in the hallway about how there wasn’t any point in trying to finish the essay because it was going to be a disaster because I’d left it so late. I’d pretty much decided at that point that handing in *nothing* was better than handing in an essay that would get anything less than a 1st. Fortunately, my friend talked me down and I did finish the essay and hand it in on time. And I did get a 1st anyway, so there you go.


This kind of incident has repeated itself at every stage of my school career. I did it in Sixth Form with my A-level biology and chemistry courseworks. I did it with my GCSE Religious Studies essays and my history coursework, and with my maths coursework in Year 9. Hell, I even remember doing it in Primary School. There was one project, which I did about Scotland and Glasgow, and my 10 year old self was convinced it was utterly crap. I’d put it off for days and ended up writing it the night before, after getting myself into a right state about how it wasn’t going to be good enough and wasn’t going to be finished on time.

I must have done that more than once in Primary school as I remember one piece of Religious Studies homework in Year 5 or 6 that I was majorly proud of myself for, *for not writing it all in one go at the last minute*. If that doesn’t tell you I was already a perfectionist by the time I was 11, I don’t know what does.

There are other things I remember from before then too. I remember a maths lesson when I was 9, and we were doing a test on long-division. I knew I’d made a mistake because I couldn’t get the sums to work but I couldn’t figure out where and I wound up in tears over my test paper. When I was 10, in Year 5, I’d convinced myself I was crap at maths because I didn’t know my times tables properly and “couldn’t do mental arithmetic” – by which I meant, I didn’t always get full marks and there were some things I couldn’t do particularly quickly. I was also convinced I was terrible at spelling and I HATED the weekly spelling tests with a passion, so I always left practising them til the night before the Friday morning test.

That legacy haunted me through all of secondary school and it was only when I was near the end of school, I realised that actually my spelling wasn’t awful any more. In fact, just a few years ago, I found a recipe I’d written in Year 4 (aged 9) for Tudor baked apples (mmm, delicious!). There were a LOT of corrections in red pen all over it, and yes my spelling wasn’t great BUT looking at it now, the words I’d spelt wrong were ones where British English doesn’t follow it’s phonetic rules at least 50% of the time! The attempted spellings all made perfect sense phonetically but that’s not how English works! Gah! If only my teacher had sat me down and explained that words weren’t often spelt the way they were pronounced, that would have saved me a lot of anguish, self-doubt and self-criticism over the years.

I don’t have any traumatic memories from before Year 4 regarding my confidence in my academic abilities, although there’s lots of other stuff I can remember from before then, which suggests that I wasn’t always a raging perfectionist who thought she “wasn’t good enough”. That’s really interesting to me and I wonder what happened and whether it was a gradual change or whether there was some specific event or series of events. But I guess I’ll never know. Not unless Mum or Dad has some insight. Certainly both my parents are also perfectionists so I could have learned it from them I suppose?

Actually, I think it could also be related to Rebecca H. She started bullying me some time in Year 3 and I had terrible trouble with her, and my parents with the school, trying to get someone to sort it out and take it seriously. All that happened was that the school told me I should ignore her and not let her get to me. I don’t think she was ever punished and she certainly never apologised or stopped. I was so glad we went to different secondary schools. Her mother was on the School’s Board of Governors and I thought at the time perhaps that was why nothing was done about it. I never did find out why she hated me so much. Friends said she was jealous but I couldn’t figure out why. What did I have going for me that she didn’t?

So I can sort of see how being bullied for years at a young age and being isolated from my friends by said bully, and depending more on my teachers approval as a result of not having many friends, coupled with being in the top 10th percentile academically, with a family history of perfectionism could have turned it into the monster it is.

Anyway, the where, when and how I learned to be a perfectionist is kind of besides the point. The real issue is that I need to learn to keep it in check now, as an adult struggling with her mental health, when those tendencies actively make low mood, depression and anxiety worse. Aside from getting through this PhD, it seems that one of the things I need to do is learn to be compassionate to myself. Hopefully that will help mitigate my perfectionistic tendencies and help me be more resillient in the future. I hope so, anyhow!


If you know of any good internet stuff on being more self-compassionate, please share in the comments. 🙂


4 thoughts on “Perfectionism as a Bully

    • No it’s not. *pouts*

      There were several bits of thesis chapter that got me that way. Persauding/tricking yourself into starting anyway is soooo hard!

      Doing my own data analysis and being grumpy at it because of experiments that didn’t work so now I don’t have the data I was hoping for, so it’s more confusing than less. Sigh.

      At least it’s easier to make graphs pretty? Although that becomes a time-suck because everything has to line up and be *just so*. Looks good once it’s done, right? 🙂

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