Setting yourself free of perfectionism?


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, your 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.

Author Bio: Gabriella Wilson is currently a doctoral student at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, researching the visual language and presentation of activist art.