Illustration by Kate Towsey for Varsity

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of eating disorders

I display all the symptoms: I despise losing to the point I refuse to play board games, the thought of failing my A-Levels made me feel physically sick and knowing I should have done something I didn’t will keep me awake and thinking at night. I am a self-confessed perfectionist.

I don’t think you can be a perfectionist and not also be scared to fail: the two come hand in hand – if you fail, surely you are no longer “perfect.” I know many of you reading this will also see yourself, at least partly, in this description.

When I was a child I would always begin a new sheet of paper if I had to cross out one word on the previous sheet – because the first just didn’t look neat enough. If I’m not the best at something, I would much rather give up than having to suffer carrying on at a below average level. I used to play a large amount of netball; if my team lost on a Sunday it would ruin my entire week.

“I have always admired those amongst my friends who seem, at least on the surface, entirely unaffected by life”

I revised for my A-Levels for weeks upon weeks because I couldn’t bear not to be the best. I refuse to play board games anymore because in all honesty I’m not especially good at them, and I just can’t bear to lose. If I’m not the best at something, I automatically dislike it. This isn’t me being big headed, rather it is the nature of the perfectionist who seeks obsessively to triumph in whatever they do.

These examples are soul destroying for a perfectionist because it means suddenly that you are not the best at something: someone else, somewhere, has figured it out – so why can’t I?

This little voice in your head may be pushy and unforgivingly motivational but, equally, it will eat you from the inside out when something goes wrong, whenever you fail or think that you might. In fact, the risk of failure is entirely overestimated; but still we see its possibility in every endeavour we pursue.

I have come to call this little unforgiving voice my greatest strength and yet also my greatest weakness. I have always admired those amongst my friends who seem, at least on the surface, entirely unaffected by life – no up or down, be it big or small, seems to have an obvious impact on them. In comparison, when I reached a stage in my life when I actually did feel like I was failing, it showed in an incredibly obvious way.

“I have, since this time, learnt how to fight against these feelings, started to figure out how to fail and how not to punish myself for it”

I suffered with anorexia, an illness that I am entirely convinced was linked to perfectionism and my consequent fear of failure. I was absolutely petrified of failing my GCSEs, of choosing a sixth form, of losing friends, and of growing up and not being successful. Food became the only thing I felt I could really control. I was referred as a hospital outpatient where, as they questioned me on my personality, eating habits and health, they asked:

“Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?”

I remember nodding solemnly, and they returned, “Ah, of course, they all are, bet you hate losing as well.”

This, then, is why I claim perfectionism to be a strength of mine and yet also my greatest weakness. It has pushed me into good grades and a good university but the overwhelming fear of failure and the fragility of the perfect persona is forever present and sometimes it is so overwhelming that it physically hurts. For me, this was through food, for others it can emerge in a whole host of different ways.


Mountain View

How anorexia tried to become my friend

I have, since this time, learnt how to fight against these feelings, started to figure out how to fail and how not to punish myself for it. In other words, my eating disorder recovery was not just about gaining weight and being healthy again – it was about learning that failure is a part of life and perfection is a goal that nobody will reach.

I know I am still learning how to couple this perfectionist ambition and fear of failure with being my own best friend, yet I would never live without it. This little voice,which constantly shrieks for perfection has got me to exactly where I want to be in life; I wouldn’t be at Cambridge without it. This is a battle I know I will have to live with probably all my life, but I, like so many others, am learning how this voice can be changed. Not being good at one thing, even a silly children’s board game, does not mean that you should punish, or respect yourself any less.

If you are affected by any of the content of this article,  B-eat Eating disorders provides useful information and resources, as well as a helpline at 0808 801 0677. The Students' Union Advice Service provides a more comprehensive list of support resources.

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