Nothing less: Toxic perfectionism & university life

Angela Nguyen explores the myth of the perfect student, and where university culture of high achievement, social engagement, and co-curricular involvement leaves out burnt out and unhappy

A written confession to my past self from my present self: I envy you.

I am one of the unfortunate ones to have “peaked” in my school years, and even unluckier to be aware of it. For many, high school is a microcosm of actualised movie stereotypes, acne and self-esteem issues. For some, it is where the constant surveillance and structured timetable gave purpose and motivation.What better way to spot those early bloomers than to tick off a statistically accurate, cross-referenced checklist published by Buzzfeed- “Tell-tale signs that you peaked in high school

Phew. I’ve still got some hope.

You become the jack of all trades and master of none.

Even worse than being stuck in high school drama is defining yourself through your high school academic achievements. A few digits on an ATAR score don’t define your intellect and definitely not those dependent on a cursed bell-curve or the ability to regurgitate the meaning of Shakespeare within an hour.

My year eleven Latin teacher once told us that there is nothing more shameful than having the best years of your life reserved for high school. Coming from a man who spent decades deliberating over life’s plentiful meanings and analogizing with the Classics, he sounded pretty serious and I was intimidated enough to pray that I wouldn’t fall victim to this illness.

However, it is not easy to escape without conscious effort to continually “self-improve”. This morbid fear of being defined by your past eventually culminates in years of remodelling and minimal sleep for the sole purpose of clipping another set of achievements to your belt. You become the jack of all trades and master of none. But somehow, a festering urge to compare yourself to that fresh-eyed “jaffy” from a few years ago remains. What ensues is an insecurity induced burnout where, in an effort to prove our capabilities to the world, the grind outweighs the reward.

The partnership as ancient and innate as the waves to the shore – the high school overachiever and their ‘lost potential’.

Every moment during my undergraduate studies was a short window of time to master everything and every co-curricular activity until it morphed into a contest between me and my past-self. Stagnation was not an option. Needless to say, my motor gave out and I spent the remainder of my final year sequestered in the library day and night.  Does this competition stem from our obsession with the past? Or perhaps we are encoded to grieve for little Johnny: three-time house swimming carnival champion and annual mathlete yet fated to spend his twenties struggling to graduate. The partnership as ancient and innate as the waves to the shore – the high school overachiever and their ‘lost potential’.

There is a succinct phrase for the inexplicable pain of wanting something you cannot have: “douleur exquise”. Making a quick trip back to the past is a desire fuelled by irrational nostalgia that will never be satiated. As a postgraduate student, I often catch myself idealising how good the undergraduate days were, forgetting the times I subsisted on caffeine and gummi worms give or take a few nights of sleep. And so, the cycle continues until we plateau at a level of content which never seems to come. This arbitrary measure of success conditions us to believe in a form of perfection that is increasingly intangible as it disappears around the corner at every reach.

The self-prescribed label of “perfectionism” can help put a reason to the constant internal disappointment of our achievements. Being the most dreaded interview question employers ask, “What is your greatest weakness?” is often enthusiastically met with “I’m a perfectionist”. Whether true or not, this well-rehearsed response is hidden under a guise of humility for a flaw that everyone knows isn’t really a flaw in job where expediency and commercial gain underlies a company’s values. In reality, it is worn as a badge of pride to reflect our relentless work ethic and attention to detail. The warped understanding of ‘perfectionism’ can lead us to believe that constant self-doubt is a hallmark for genius, or at most, of dedication. As clichéd as it sounds, the chronic nit-picking of ourselves only creates an expectation for failure. The feeling that there is no absolution for mediocrity comes from a need to find validation. As self-validation rarely exists and validation from others can disappear as quickly as it comes, the crippling nature of “perfectionism” can manifest in procrastination rather than productivity.

So where does “perfectionism” come from and how can we stop the culture of celebrating this characteristic as a virtue? It is important to ask for who we seek perfection. The concept of perfectionism consists of a multidimensional model where the high standards set for ourselves can be classified as “socially prescribed” or “self-oriented” (Flett & Hewitt, 2002). A research paper on “Gifted High-School Students’ Perspectives on the Development of Perfectionism”, examined the roots of socially prescribed young perfectionists as often coming from parental expectations and responses where future actions exist to chase the highs of past praise (Speirs Neumeister, Williams & Cross, 2009). Self-oriented perfectionism, however, arises from the absence of such parental expectations and validation which drives us to create our own standards.

Replace parents with the tertiary educational system, and we see the same debilitating fear of disappointment. The tough love approach universities love to employ on its hopeful students advertises autonomy as its intention. Though differing among faculties and courses, this often means astronomically high expectations to obtain certain marks while offering vague instructions and scarce feedback. In particular, the transition from high school to undergraduate studies does not prepare students for such standards and when past academic achievements are set as a norm, mere adequacy becomes failure. Being the opioid of academia, a high distinction grade often follows subjective and unpredictable marking schemes which makes it all the more enticing. The gratification of obtaining one makes perfectionism a huge driver for subsequent assignments where one more is never enough.

This fabricated persona of apathy and impulsivity hid the fact that I was afraid of imperfection which, in the realm of tertiary studies, felt like failure.

While monitoring parenting styles is near impossible (and very Orwellian), subverting how universities educate its students and implementing systems that don’t just aim to scare off prospective graduates is a good start. It is no wonder that, amid all this havoc, we can’t help but to peek back at a past when an essay couldn’t single-handedly sabotage our career prospects.

After four years of university, every assignment is still a game for me, constituting two weeks of denial, a few days of active avoidance followed by a good eight hours of skimming abstracts before hitting the submit button with two minutes to go. I practised cultivating years of excuses to justify my perceived attraction towards chaos. “Don’t worry I thrive on stress”, “I love the adrenaline” and even “I can’t be bothered” were the main players of a pretence I had created for myself. This fabricated persona of apathy and impulsivity hid the fact that I was afraid of imperfection which, in the realm of tertiary studies, felt like failure. Truthfully, the only adrenaline I craved was the appraisal that followed the contrived “perfection” I seemed to teeter on the edge of in school.

Ruminating on past successes seems to carry shame in any conversation due to the obsession with focusing on the “now”. If you’re not at your happiest now, then something is wrong. I recently agreed with these well-intentioned words because the underlying message is what we all should strive for: continual self-improvement. However, emotional states and perceived past achievements may just reflect the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves.

Admittedly, fixating on the past is no way to live or sculpt an identity. And perhaps this habit is so ingrained in our psyche that there is no cure regardless of how many self-help books we consume. This doesn’t mean that the past was necessarily any better or that we’re losers for being unable to relinquish the glory of our young selves. The truth is, we can only control our responses to situations that land in front of us, whether it be a flawed educational system or slight brain damage from years of EOX parties. If this means grades that will humiliate our once-hopeful high school teachers, then so be it.

Angela Nguyen studies a Doctor of Optometry at the University of Melbourne and has an unhealthy passion for verb conjugations.

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