Confessions of a Female Perfectionist
On perfectionism, over-commitment, and how 'leaning in' isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
It’s March 2019, Week 1 of Uni done, back after a three-month hiatus. It’s my favourite time of year.
Everything is fresh. New year, new subjects, new opportunities. Everyone seems friendlier, more open to interaction, not yet jaded.
I start over-committing, despite a history of crisis following crisis. Didactic words of wisdom belonging to concerned loved ones, reminding me – post-breakdown, of previous years of dramas and tears, have faded to the background.
This is the story of an idealistic A.D.H.D university student who lies awake at 1am with grand plans.
I start following more podcasts and do my readings two weeks ahead. I sign up to write for all the university publications, I start going on runs, I trial yoga, I buy myself a bunch of books, I click ‘interested’ on several Facebook events featuring professional panels, and apply for multiple jobs and internships. I tell all my friends that this is the year that I will make an effort to see them, to go to gigs starring niche bands and my first warehouse party (a kind of rite of passage for a Sydney youth wanting to live their best life).
This is the story of an idealistic A.D.H.D university student who lies awake at 1am with grand plans. Books by the likes of Leigh Sales and Cheryl Sandberg lie stacked next to her bed.
And then, by Week 4, it all flips.
Readings begin to fall to the way-side, while books and memoirs by female icons lie forgotten and dusty on the shelf. Meetings and arrangements get double-booked accidentally, deadlines fly by without barely an acknowledging glance, friends fall out of contact, hobbies become chores, and everyone winds up disappointed. Assignments are hastily completed at 4am. You scrape through the semester. You wrote one opinion piece for the Uni newspaper, so you pat yourself on the back and resign to creative dormancy for the rest of the year. The meditation app becomes a relic, but you don’t tell your mum who stills pays for the monthly subscription.
How do you let this happen, time and time again?
Why do you over-commit yourself, why do you over-idealise, and why do you sustain a belief that you could be a modern-day Mary Poppins who transitions smoothly from babysitter to PM?
It’s a similar story many of us know in some form or another. It happens every semester, but not quite like the early days of March.
This story is certainly not unique to women, but for me, it has so much to do with it. I am living in a feminist catch-22. I started university in 2016, the same year I watched a Ted talk with Reshma Saujani, American lawyer, politician and founder of Girls Who Code. She called it ‘Teach girls bravery, not perfection’.
“So many women I talk to tell me they gravitate towards careers and professions that they know they’re going to be great in, that they know they’re going to be perfect in, and it’s no wonder why. Most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure… We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”
She explains that in leadership, government, firms – you name it – there’s a “bravery deficit” and refers to a study from the 1980’s by psychologist Carol Dweck. In the study, primary aged students were asked to complete a task that was designed to be too difficult for them. She found that the brightest girls were the most likely to give up. Comparatively, bright boys felt energised by the challenge and worked harder to complete the task. The study demonstrated a clear difference in how gender affects one’s ability to approach a challenge.
“I think it’s evidence that women have been socialised to perfection, and that they are overly cautious. And even when we’re ambitious, even when we’re leaning in, that socialisation of perfection has caused us to take less risks in our careers.”
When I was five, my teacher informed my parents that I cried almost every day. Not because I wasn’t capable of doing my Year K school work, but because I couldn’t handle making one small mistake. Seventeen years later and I’m beginning to see a pattern:
Step 1: Get inspired.
Watch Labor MP Terry Butler on Q&A face off with Jordan Peterson. Listen to the ‘Chats 10 Looks 3’ podcast with Leigh Sales and Annabelle Crabb. Re-watch Penny Wong talk about feminism. Watch the documentary RBG. Follow the Instagram page of – and develop an unrelenting girl-crush – on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018).
Step 2: Over-commit.
Refer back to previous examples of idealistic university student following a three-month hiatus.
Step 3: Feel overwhelmed.
You’re juggling ten balls in the air because you kept saying “yes I can”, while Cheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” mantra leaps from the pages buried inside your bedside table and inserts itself into your subconscious.
Then around Week 3 or 4 you make a mistake. Maybe it was the A.D.H.D, insomnia, lack of discipline, poor time management, or an external factor – nonetheless, a ball drops.
Step 4: Self-doubt.
You let a ball drop, how could you?
What’s the point? Another ball drops.
Step 5: The meltdown.
Hide. Sleep. Cry. Watch dumb television to escape your reality. Another ball drops. You find it harder and harder to crawl out of bed in the morning.
Step 6: Recovery.
You make your way through the rest of semester relying purely on your intelligence, last-minute adrenaline and that god-saving mid-semester break. Your mental health sucks.
And then you reach the end and relief lifts you up into the air on a flying carpet with a gorgeous Arabian prince. Yet, there’s a sense of emptiness, and you feel somewhat unaccomplished because instead of flourishing you only just got by.
Over the course of a three-month hiatus the effects of retrospection wear off, and by March you’ve found another female superstar to lead you to salvation.
I re-watch Reshma Saujani’s Ted talk and realise the keyword in all of this is self-doubt.
We talk about how under-qualified we are, how over-whelmed, how anxious and fearful we are of taking risks.
Perhaps it’s genetic, and perhaps it’s socialisation. Good ol’ common sense says that it’s probably somewhere in between. Even when I put figurative pen to paper, and write about it, I sense the amplified tone of doubt, failure and over-dramatisation in my writing. Obviously, my life isn’t that chaotic (God I hope no future employer sees this).
I see it in many of my female friends. We like to talk to each other, a lot, and about everything. Every thought, every yelp of excitement and every angst. Female camaraderie is magical. And yet the seeds of self-doubt, sewn elsewhere through social conditioning or genes, wriggle their way in and manifest there too. We talk about how under-qualified we are, how over-whelmed, how anxious and fearful we are of taking risks. But then we love each other too. We cry together on the couch, whisper words of strength and all that fluff. We tell each other that harmful thoughts like self-doubt are bad and we should vanquish them. Like ka-boom, and done.
The procedure from before is probably an inaccurate reflection of my life. It was funny to write down, but it was wrong and doesn’t do myself or my readers justice. We struggle and drop the juggling balls sometimes, either because of our own mistakes or because we come into contact with external factors such as family issues, finance, or discrimination, or mental health, or some tier of oppression, or all of them combined. We tackle these bumps in the road in different ways, with different tools and levels of strength.
Perhaps we should consider that the cure to self-doubt isn’t over-confidence, but rather resilience.
. . .
(My mother believes the solution is meditation.)
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