This term I’ve worked with several students struggling with stress and nerves in the run up to GCSE exams. The thing that struck me is how the fear of failure and not being good enough was almost paralysing them from taking any action at all. Their desire to be perfect was all-consuming and, ironically, stopped them from making any progress. The thoughts, fear, panic and worry about all the work they had to do became so magnified in their heads that they ended up getting very little done at all.
I feel like that sometimes – sometimes I have so much to do, I feel like I’m chasing my tail whilst simultaneously on a merry-go-round that’s going a little too fast and I just want to get off so that I can focus on one thing at a time. Focus – follow one course of action until successful.
And that’s what I advised the students to do: yes, they had to look at the bigger picture (exams, coursework, school work and homework) but that old adage of, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” came to mind where they then need to focus on one thing until it’s done and then move onto another. Working frantically, doing a bit here and a bit there simply causes conflict in our minds and we lose tranquillity.
The perfectionist tendencies of some of these students is causing them so much turmoil.
I know what that’s like too.
Until I had my own children in my mid-twenties, I was a perfectionist…the point when I was able to liberate myself from this burden was when I realised that the world wouldn’t end if I didn’t hold myself accountable to the highest standards. I hadn’t even realised I was a perfectionist until someone close to me did a course in psychology and accused me (out of what seemed like nowhere) of being “a despot” with my older child due to my perfectionist tendencies.
Yes, that hurt.
It hurt like hell, (all I’d been trying to do was establish a regular eating and sleeping routine with my daughter, but hey, as the late agony aunt Clare Rayner used to say, “A mother’s place is in the wrong!”).
However, once I’d nursed my bruised ego, I was able to reflect and experiment with letting go a bit and taking some of the self-imposed pressure off. And wow, it was great!
Over time, I began to see that my anxiety about being inadequate was causing me to try to control myself and aim to be perfect when I didn’t actually need that pressure and self-flagellation to be a great wife, mother, student, friend, daughter…
But it did take time and practice – lots and lots of practice being kind to myself and ignoring that old voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough.
So, coming back to our children who may have perfectionist tendencies: I’d encourage them to try to relinquish some of the need to control the outcome and their attachment to being perfect … and to just see what happens – I’ll bet they can still be successful without the strain and the suffering. Sometimes it can be good to “feel the fear and do it anyway” (thank you Susan Jeffers) to train our brain to see that a particular situation (such as an exam or school event) isn’t actually one to fear, and will help develop their confidence when they see that they can cope in situations that are unnerving for them.