I wasn’t always a perfectionist.
In high school and sixth form, all the way through to my final year of university, I was lazy. I knew I was smart enough to not do very much work and get by. My grades weren’t extraordinary, one way or the other. The odd A, the rare A* and a smattering of B’s. Nothing to invite great praise, nothing to cause concern.
I get into an average university (below average, let’s be real). I’m a solid 2:1 student throughout. Crippling anxiety and a less than joyful university experience probably don’t help matters but that’s a tale for another day.
I get to my third year and I realise I could get a first if I knuckle down. I really want a first. So I knuckle down. I get a first.
This is where it starts. I am so engaged with work in that third year. I love seminars and research and ideas and writing. The trend continues when I leave university – I throw myself into volunteering and work and then university again and more work and journo training and then, eventually, reporting, I start running and I want to be a great runner, when I was going bouldering on the regular I would stick with one problem until I cracked it.
Perfectionism is such a kick, I can’t tell you. Being good at stuff, consistently, whatever that might be, gives me a rush. Like the goody two-shoes version of crack cocaine (probably).
The problem with relying on hitting those targets is that each time you reach one, you need to push yourself a little bit further (be even more of a perfectionist, to a higher standard). What was once an adrenaline rush becomes the norm. Instead of achievement you feel relief that you didn’t mess up. For you to continue to get the same hit, the bar has to get higher and higher.
And the handful of times (out of hundreds) that you don’t scrape your way over the bar? You feel terrible. Utterly awful. How could you have missed? You’re a failure, a fraud. Everyone will notice. You’ll beat yourself up about it for days, weeks even. The memory of how it feels to miss the target will stay with you, creep up on you in moments of self-doubt. Missing the target is so much more powerful than the relief you feel when you hit it.
Over time, what started off as a positive thing – the high standards that accompany perfectionism are not in themselves bad – turned sour. I was burnt out but I carried on pushing. My physical and mental health were both suffering as a result of this desire to be the best.
So, here’s what I’ve been doing.
I stopped running and now that I’ve started again, I am learning to let myself go as slowly as I want to. I don’t have ‘mile’ targets or time targets or any target other than to start and finish the run. I put a podcast or a guided run on and I just go. The guided runs are particularly brilliant because they are full of the kind of inspirational bullshit that I need to hear. Today’s talked a lot about patience and recovery. I am trying my best at both.
I am writing. As much as I can. I don’t edit. I just write. My phone is full of notes, half written poems that my brain just needed to be on a page (or a screen), proper notebooks with scribbles and outlines and ‘here’s how I’m feeling at right this very second’ and ‘here are some thoughts I’m having’ and ‘here’s some more of that poetry good lord I am so bad at poetry but at least I am trying’. Streams of words that have will have no home other than the page they are written on.
I am trying to gloss over things less. ‘How are you?’ doesn’t always need an impressive answer.
There are other things, of course and there is a lot more to be done. Practising non-perfectionism feels unnatural and uncomfortable and like an awful lot of work. But a wise man once told me that this work isn’t about becoming a below average or even an average person/writer/runner/whatever else it might be – it’s about achieving brilliance without sacrificing your well-being.
With that in mind, sign me up to the hard work. I promise to do my best – no more, no less.