Perfectionism can become an all-consuming fear of the inherent imperfections of lifeDaniel Gayne

I arrived at Cambridge, like many people, with high expectations, both of myself and of the “Cambridge experience.” I had found my last few years at school pretty tough — I struggled with burgeoning mental health issues that I was woefully ill-equipped to either describe or seek help for, and longed for an escape into the ‘real world’ that I believed university would provide.

At first, Cambridge was an absolute haven. I found people who I gelled with, threw myself into academic work that I loved, and found a community of amazing people at my college and in my subject cohort. My high expectations drove me forward. I’d always thought of myself as a smart person, and it was most certainly an essential and defining part of my personality. As time went on though, high standards became a kind of disabling perfectionism.

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Essays that had once been satisfying and enjoyable to write gradually became horrifying exercises in self-doubt and insecurity. There was nothing worse than having to sit down and fill a blank white page with what felt like my unworthy patter. This was a sort of imposter syndrome that most of us have experienced at some point in our time at Cambridge: feeling like we’ve got in by mistake or chance, and that we don’t really deserve to be there. These feelings of worthlessness in my academic work started to leak into my personal life as well. It felt like I had lost a part of myself that defined me: my ability to perform academically.

At first, I managed to struggle through, keeping up the brave face I had put on in sixth form, and although I confided in a few close friends how I was feeling, I didn’t take it any further than that. Throughout first year I barely kept my head above water, and my work bore the brunt of what was happening. Essays were rarely written, I was too anxious and distracted to even begin them, and I often rescheduled supervisions just to avoid or delay them. My confidence and self-esteem were dragged down too, and a place that once made me feel comfortable and welcome now seemed to leave me very insecure about things that had until then been pretty constant: my appearance, my friendships, my hobbies, and so on.

“Instead of a nebulous feeling of defeat from acknowledging I needed help, I came to see it as the most rewarding and liberating thing I could have done”

I got through first year, luckily, with plenty of support from my DoS and supervisors, and arrived back for second year feeling positive. Nothing much had changed, though, and I struggled even more to keep up. With things spiralling quickly I was now struggling on two fronts: to try to tackle debilitating self-doubt and particularly anxiety, and to cover up how I was doing. Having been relatively open about my feelings at the start of first year, as some sort of bizarre self-protection I decided to completely clam up — if no one else knew how I was feeling, I wouldn’t need to face it in the open. I pushed away friends and isolated myself consistently, while my work continued to fall by the wayside. Eventually, at the end of Lent term, after talking to friends and many meetings with my Tutor and DoS, I decided I wanted to intermit.

At the time, taking time off and admitting I needed help felt like the most terrible thing I could do. It felt like I was giving up, like I was proving all of my worst insecurities right, that I couldn’t cope and that I wasn’t good enough to even be at Cambridge. Asking for help, admitting you’re in over your head is never an easy thing to do. But when you’ve been conditioned to always be striving to be the best, it is anathema to your core motivations and beliefs. It is all too easy to tell yourself you can struggle through, to convince yourself that you can manage alone, and to shut off those genuine voices whose concern should force you to examine your own insecurities and fragility.

I’m now returning from my second consecutive year off, and that time has allowed me to develop a revealing and powerful sense of perspective. The very real problems with my own expectations had led to an inevitable burn-out. I wasn’t deficient or incapable. It was more the case that my own obsessive drive for perfection had been a thorn in my side. Instead of a nebulous feeling of defeat from acknowledging I needed help, I came to see it as the most rewarding and liberating thing I could have done.


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No human being is perfect. We all struggle, we all make mistakes, and we all have flaws. Perfectionism can be a drive to improve, to work harder, but when it becomes an all-consuming fear of the inherent imperfections of life, it is disabling and overwhelming. Flaws are not only what make academia and indeed life itself intriguing, challenging, and engaging, but they also allow us to grow and improve. Without them, the joy of true accomplishments both small and large would be diminished to a maudlin relief. There is a fine line between high standards and unrealistic standards.

Gaining this new perspective hasn’t been easy, and I only wish I had done something sooner to help myself. I’m returning to Cambridge more excited and determined than ever, but I don’t regret intermitting for one second, and I know that it was the right thing to do for me at that time. Cambridge is a wonderful place, full of opportunity, but it can be tough too. If you’re struggling, sometimes the best thing you can do is just talk about it. You’d be surprised how many people are struggling, in the same way that only you might seem to be. And you’d be surprised how liberating and helpful it can be.

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