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The Double-Edged Sword of Perfectionism: A Reflection

This website, and this blog, have been in development for over a year. The idea of them existed long before that. There have been numerous barriers to publishing it tied to my neurodivergence and my health - executive functioning challenges, flare ups of chronic illness and dealing with the stresses of daily life which have always seemed much more intense to me than anyone else around me. At this point though, being honest to myself, the most stubborn and deep-rooted of them all is my perfectionism. Blank pages, sketchbooks and text-boxes fill me with dread, and I can't stand not being immediately good at something even if I've never done it before.

My perfectionism is enmeshed with my autistic traits of all-or-nothing thinking, literal interpretation, strong sense of justice and perseveration (being stuck on an idea). These aspects of myself come together in some of my greatest strengths; my research skills, my resilience and my attention to detail. I have to acknowledge that my perfectionism has helped me achieve the things I'm proud of. But at what cost?

Perfectionism has a sneaky way of persuading me to let it dominate through contributing to my achievements and, unfortunately, making up a large part of my self-worth. As an awkward, depressed and anxious (yet to be identified as neurodivergent) kid fumbling through life and feeling like a failure in all social situations, my sense of self was largely built around what I did feel good at, academics and art. What I now realise was hyperlexia as a child meant that I was speaking, reading and writing at an unexpectedly high level from toddlerhood - although my communication abilities didn't develop alongside it in the expected way. Countless school break-times spent hiding away in a classroom doing research or making art paired with keeping my head down in class meant I was consistently achieving high grades, praise and labels like 'gifted' and 'overachiever'. Not 'autistic' yet though.

During high school, the toll on my mental health of being a bullied kid with undiagnosed autism and ADHD along with experiencing several chronic illness and the development of my cPTSD caught up with me. I stopped going to school and spent the last year or so of my GCSEs teaching myself at home. I got 8 A*s and 4As. I don't remember much about that time in my life, but knowing myself as well as I do now, I know I must have been secretly devastated about the four missing stars. Looking back now I'm filled with sadness for my younger self, and anger that she didn't get more support. It's heartbreaking to think that because my exam results (which, let's be honest, even at the time didn't bear much relevance and have no effect on my current life) were upsetting. Now I see things differently - the unnecessary stress of working so hard for those marks during one of the most difficult periods of my life just wasn't worth it. At the time though, it felt like all I had. Similar scenarios repeated themselves at college then at university. Great grades, but horrible mental health. Barely anyone noticed that part. Of course, my perfectionism is also tied tightly to my masking - a whole other conversation for a future post.

I've always given my all at work too. For the short times I've remained at any job, always ducking out just before my difficulties became obvious, I was known as an incredibly hard-worker. Always trying my best to do everything right. I now know that when neurotypicals say 'give it your all' or '110% effort', that's often not what they mean. And rules often aren't really rules at all.

In my experience, self-worth based on performance gets increasingly difficult as you progress through life. Your marks and achievements become less impressive and the demands on you become more significant, with the mismatch of capacity and demands unsurprisingly burning you out until you're incapable of anything you once were. Skill regression is a very real and very scary part of autistic burn-out, and I also feel that the constant lifelong stress has contributed to my chronic illness and the overwhelming brain fog it brings. I've felt so much shame and guilt attributed to what I believe was 'wasted potential' of the gifted kid, because instead of meeting the misguided expectations of myself and others, I became unable to work or even take care of myself.

Everything fell apart for me a couple of years ago. I'd been severely burnt out for along time, but resigning from what I thought would be a well-suited job for me was the trigger to a complete change of lifestyle. I was in the first job I'd had which required my degree and the role was fulfilling, but ironically, given my job was in the disability support field, management were infuriatingly unaccommodating of my neurodivergence. Amongst this, my written work was criticised in such a way that can only be described as extreme nit-picking - a perfectionist's worst nightmare. I know my reports were written to a high standard, but not in the exact style they expected, so would be returned covered in 'corrections', and ambiguous comments which didn't actually explain how to address the issue: "it's common sense". That wasn't the only reason I resigned, but it was a big factor. I'm thankful that I started seeing my therapist during this time, to counteract the gaslighting I was experiencing that was literally making me question my own sanity as well as my interpretations of the situation. I still feel sick at the thought of it, and continue to struggle to engage with the feedback on my written work to this day, though I have to say my current uni tutor could not be better at giving thoughtful, constructive and supportive feedback.

I've been intentionally challenging my perfectionism since. I think it started with a Wreck This Journal (a book which encourages you to essentially destroy each page in a different way), as I'd started out wanting to overcome perfectionism in art to help me get started on the creative process without worrying about the outcome. I'm not sure it helped much with that, I still haven't made art in a long time, but I have made progress in other areas. My diagnoses and two and half years of counselling with a neuro-affirming therapist have been instrumental in my development of self-compassion. I make an effort to only surround myself with supportive friends, family and academic staff - who are often neurodivergent too. Accommodations such as assistive software to reduce the overthinking and overediting when writing papers have also been really helpful. My work mentoring other autistic/ADHD young adults has been so fulfilling and validating for me too; I'm able to work independently without micro-management and can see first-hand the positive results of the support I provide. It also forces me to apply my own advice to my own life!

All of these things have helped me in understanding that's okay to do things differently, make mistakes, and be myself - not to say I don't still struggle with it, but I do have that compassion for myself overall even if I'm finding it difficult in the moment. I often find myself reframing my situation to imagine what I would think about or how I would advise a loved one in my position, which is usually much kinder than I would default to treating myself. I believe that my perfectionism is something I'll wrestle with my whole life. I don't think I'll ever stop thinking of the infinite possibilities of a given situation and wondering what the 'best' way forward is from an overwhelming range of options - but that's also what fuels my curiosity and creativity. I know there are positives to be drawn from perfectionism, methods of accommodating it and ways to use it to my advantage without letting it consume my life. Here's to another big step in that journey: publishing this post.

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