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Losing my humanity: the perils of academic perfectionism

ByTia Byer

Apr 23, 2019

Why is it, that whatever we do, whether it be academic or actual, is never enough? Professor Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill (2018) call perfectionism the leading “epidemic among young people” of the millennial age. They state that in today’s society there is “an enormous pressure on young people to demonstrate their value and outperform their peers”, leading to an increase in mental health issues and psychological punishment.  For Curran and Hill, “the negative effects of this market-based society” produces a “culture which is fundamentally changing the way young people think about themselves and others”. This is a story and an experience I know all too well- scarily well. But what I want to discuss is the implications of this monomaniac obsession, not in terms of being a form of self-abuse, but in terms of becoming outwardly critical.

Let me take you back to the second year of my undergraduate degree. It was halfway through the semester- it was a gothic and horror module and, the peak of my academic perfectionism illness. To quote Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. My average had gone up, I was happy and content, but of course, below my happy exterior, the hateful monster that is perfectionism was silently awakening, ready to pounce on my balanced approach to life and studies, and thus tear through my self-proclaimed winning streak. We had just finished our first assignment. Grades were back and I was not happy. My essay was lacking in clarity and was wholly unpersuasive. My lecturer had decorated my essay with countless red biro markings. My essay was not as good as I thought it would be. I was furious. I was furious at my lecturer, furious, at that moment, at the whole entire world it seemed.  But above all, and rather begrudgingly, I was furious at myself.  I pouted, I sulked and I scorned. How could this happen to me? Why me? Why did they get a better mark? It’s not fair!  I frantically asked around to see, prove, and justify the fact that it must have been a particularly challenging essay. I cringe as I write this; I am ashamed of behaviour. I mean oh my goodness, if I was watching someone else inquire around like I did; I think I would be judging- judging hard. Nevertheless, I did do this.

I remember asking one classmate how she did and explained that I was so disappointed. She said that she was actually really pleasantly surprised by her mark; I felt the hot whips of panic setting in. Well, I am not… and continued to disclose my exact mark. Yes me too the girl shared. It turned out we got the same grade, except one of us was happy about it and the other was sour and actually (inadvertently but nevertheless unkindly) s******* over the others’ grade. I felt so embarrassed and awkward. I probably had just ruined her day. How unthinking and horrifying of me?! I had turned into one of those obnoxious people who sit around berating certain marks as bad or unimpressive, in full earshot of people who actually have that particular grade as a target or as a good grade. In other words, I had turned into one of those people who I hate. In at times playing the victim of a harsh and sometimes brutally competitive society that is obsessed with academic perfectionism, I had just sustained the system and turned into the Frankensteinian monster.

Let us stop. Let us kill the perfectionist inside and start being kinder to ourselves and definitely other people. Academic perfection has a tendency to make you judge yourself and define oneself against others, whether for good or ill. We inadvertently get caught in a vivacious cycle of endlessly fretting over the way we and our grades will be judged, and thus pleading for sympathy, non-judgement and understanding in those less successful instances, whilst ferociously judging others when we do succeed, so as to make sure that we as individuals are the only ones achieving well, and thus fashioning ourselves as the best.

I have been on both sides of that conversation. I have been the one made to feel bad and not good enough, and now I have been the one causing that. It was a humbling and shameful experience. Not everyone has to be amazing all of the time, and I have told myself that constantly. I will be on the receiving end again because that is sometimes the way the world works – we cannot always be perfect. But I hope and pray that I will not be the implementer again. It was embarrassing. Now perhaps one could even read this very article as reinforcing the same thing. It could be, but it is not my intention. My intention instead is to provide a disclaimer; a warning to both parties in this dynamic, which hopefully I have illustrated to exist in a state of flux. Be careful of what you say and who is listening. You might accidentally tear someone else down, even when you were not aware of doing so. Remember the time that it happened to you and how bad it felt; chances are it will happen again. Academic perfectionism makes us forget our once arduous strivings, where success was not always the end result. Academic perfectionism makes us have a narrow view of the world, making us bitter, judgemental and overall horribly pretentious. But most importantly, academic perfectionism turns us into the punisher that we initial sort to escape through seeking improvement. In trying to survive the competitive existence that is modern-day academic pursuit, we inadvertently provide the means of completion, and in doing so, we inadvertently lose our humanity.


Image: Alexas_Fotos via pixabay.com

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