Tom is a 4th-year Law/Policy Studies human who loves writing policy, making tasty sandwiches, and obsessing over backpacks. He’s also an ANUSA Gen Rep, and you can find out what he’s up to at fb.me/tomkesinaforanusa.
I used to think I wasn’t a perfectionist. ‘But I don’t want to be perfect at all’, I’d say. On the surface, I thought in terms of ‘just not good enough’ and ‘should have done better’. What I couldn’t see was that for me, those two things meant the same thing as ‘I’m not perfect’. Those who know me know that I’m a bit of a #involved person. I’ve been at ANU for four years; in ANUSA for three of those, as well as involved with clubs, initiatives and volunteering. I’ve got a lot to be proud of, but I’ve always felt an undercurrent of inadequacy and incompetence in comparison to those around me.
It really kicked off in my first year, when a lifetime of self-doubt combined with emerging depression and anxiety. For the longest time I tried to deny that anything was wrong, but my health worsened in my second semester. Coming to ANU I had fairly unreasonable standards and expectations of my healthier self. As my health deteriorated, my academic performance did as well, but my expectations stayed the same. In an environment where everyone is amazing, it was hard not to compare myself to others. I honestly hated myself and my brain for not being able to do what it couldn’t. In my mind, I didn’t need or deserve help, I just needed to do ‘better’.
Eventually I got some help, joined the ANUSA Disabilities Department, and met some great people. For a time, I thought I was well on my way to dealing with everything. In my third year, I became the ANUSA Disabilities Officer. It was my job to advocate for students with disability, help them access services, and increase acceptance of disability in the wider community. Although I was good at my job, feelings of inadequacy quickly began to rear their head again. And when I inevitably made mistakes, I was uncompromisingly harsh on myself. I did this while I was telling other students to be kind to themselves, and to do the best they could. In my mind, self compassion was for other, better people. When I fell behind with emails or a project, I felt the need to push myself harder. I thought that being ‘good enough’ (read: perfect) was within reach, that it was just a matter of trying a little harder, staying in the office a little longer, and sleeping a little less.
I made no allowances for the fact I had ongoing anxiety and depression. While telling myself that I’d come to terms with my disability, I didn’t alter my expectations to even slightly realistic levels. I felt that not being ‘good enough’ was admitting that I was lesser. I thought that doing less meant being less. I was worried that when I failed, other people would look at me the same way I viewed myself. Somewhat ironically, that fear of failing to live up to my impossible standards had a paralysing effect on my ability to work at all. I recall many moments when I tried to start working, remembered how far behind I was, felt I couldn’t catch up, and stopped. I thought that if I couldn’t be ‘good enough’, why bother at all. Inevitably I fell more and more behind, the cycle repeated itself, and I felt worse.
A Counselling Centre workshop on perfectionism, and chats with my psychologist at Headspace allowed me to start recognising the patterns of thinking that formed my perfectionism. I remember the first time my psych more or less asked me if I thought I was a perfectionist. I was adamant that I wasn’t, ‘I’m not perfect at all’, I said. She smiled, and I heard myself for what I felt like the first time. I realised that I couldn’t think in terms of ‘I did the best I could’ – it simply wasn’t in my mental vocabulary. All I could think was, ‘I should have done better’, and there wasn’t an area of my life that wasn’t infected by that thinking, no matter whether social or academic.
What I came to realise was that perfectionism doesn’t allow for nuance. You’re either perfect and doing amazing, or you’re a failure. Of course, because that’s always coupled with unreasonable standards and expectations, you tend to find yourself in the latter category. It took a long time before I was able to start to undo the damage, and it’s an ongoing fight. This year, after a lifetime of should-have thinking, I’m trying be more compassionate to myself. Instead of thinking about what I ought to be doing, I’ve been thinking about what I can do, and valuing that. I’ve still got anxiety and depression, and I’m not sure that’s something that is going away. But that’s okay, I’m doing the best I can. And that’s actually ‘good enough’.