When I was a child, praise was the medal I was chasing. All I wanted was to gain acceptance and positive feedback from friends, family and teachers. To my mind, the best way to be as a young girl was to be a mixture of clever, cool and pretty – I perceived myself to be none of these things. Therefore, I felt I was an imperfect human being.
When I was a teenager, maintaining good grades at school became my raison d’etre. Any time I slipped up was a fracture to my fragile sense of identity. All of my self worth came from attainment. Yes, there were things that gave me joy, such as playing guitar, but only when I felt proficient at it. Even my leisure activities were measured by an imaginary ruler that judged my performance. I could never reach the unattainable heights that I felt I should be reaching. Therefore, I was not good enough and I was an imperfect human being.
When I was applying for Medicine at university in my final years of school, my sense of worth depended on gaining a place. But guess what? Even when I did, I put the success down to luck, a fluke and the fact that the admissions personnel must have been feeling sorry for me. I taught myself that I was undeserving of this and therefore, I was an imperfect human being.
During medical school I compared myself to everyone. I never felt good enough and this impacted on my self esteem and confidence. It could be argued that medical school is subtly (maybe it’s not so subtle, I’m not the best judge) competitive. However, my brain clung onto this feeling that my self worth depended on where I ranked next to my fellow students. And you’ll never guess how this made me feel – like I was an imperfect human being.
When I graduated, I felt this was wholly undeserved. It wasn’t a real graduation for me, compared with the graduates I stood next to in our photos. I could be physically standing beside them, getting the same letters on my degree certificate but I felt like I might as well be 2 centimetres tall in comparison, never reaching the heights that I perceived them to be at. You guessed it… imperfect human being.
When I had an anxiety attack in the hospital whilst working as a junior doctor and ended up having time off work, I thought “this is just what I deserve, for something to put me in my proper place and remind me that I’m not good enough, because I’ve been an impostor this whole time.” My sense of identity as a doctor had been shattered. I had tried and failed and I was, ultimately, an imperfect human being.
Around about this time in my life, when I had time to stop and focus less on striving, I realised that these ideas were not helping me to thrive. There was a toxic pattern that I had been following, throughout all of my life.
I have summarised this rule into the following equation:
Achievement of a goal = happiness
However, in practice, whenever a small setback happened, it looked more like this:
99% of goal achieved + small setback = complete failure
Throughout almost all the phases of my life, I had rules for what “perfect” looked like. These rules were artificial and the power that they held in my brain clouded over the fact that my intuition was trying to tell me something.
- When I was a child, I wasn’t interested in being trendy but I loved arts and crafts, reading Harry Potter and playing with my friends. I followed what brought me joy.
- When I was in school, I loved playing in a band and listening to music and shared these passions with friends.
- When I was applying for medical school I saw myself in a caring role and had a yearning to give comfort to people.
- When I was studying medicine, although studying was not easy for me, some of my happiest memories in that phase of life were when I was in my room alone, in flow for even just 30 minutes studying an interesting concept. At this time I realised that I identify strongly as an introvert and began to embrace it.
- When I was working as a doctor, I had many positive experiences connecting with patients. In those moments I wasn’t really there as a doctor; I was merely a person, listening to their ideas and fears. In that moment, my grades meant nothing, my successes and failures didn’t exist and I was showing up as me.
In my happiest moments, I have not had an identity, I have solely been a human being seeking what gives me joy. Therefore, I would like to make a correction to my previous equation:
Achievement of a goal ≠ happiness
But who am I to dictate what happiness is? So maybe this is more accurate:
Achievement of a goal ≆* happiness
*Approximately but not actually equal to
This is still a questionable statement to me, however, I am sure of the following, although it’s not quite so neat and tidy:
Doing what intuitively brings you joy regardless of how you measure up to others
With this mindset I have infinite potential to learn and grow and this gives me a feeling of joy that I have never known before in my life.
So if you suffer from “perfectionism” or “I’ll never be good enough-itis” or whatever you like to call it, you are not alone. High standards get people places, and they serve a purpose for sure, but there comes a point when their power can be a hindrance, not a help. Depending on how much weight they hold, they can drag us down. None of us have the answers or a simple fix, but I hope that by sharing my experiences and what I am still learning to ease the unhelpful voices in my head, it may help to create a more open dialogue about these uncomfortable thoughts.
I have been an imperfect human being all my life. I still am and I’ve embraced the idea that I will be imperfect until the day I die.