Sunday 7 May 2017

From Perfectionism to Positivity

Katherine writes about how striving for perfection affects her mental health, and how being open about her experiences has helped her to think more positively about the future.
- Katherine Wood

During my first year at university, I experienced severe weight loss due to anorexia. Fortunately, I recovered, and for the last three years my weight has remained relatively stable. I am now able to sustain high levels of training as a competitive endurance athlete.
While I no longer consider myself to have an eating disorder, I now experience depression with anxiety despite, on the face of it, being a very successful 21-year-old. I am high-achieving academically; I have a supportive boyfriend and a caring family; I am in the top handful of endurance runners in the UK for my age and distance; and anything I put my mind to, I excel at.

But these seemingly positive things are major driving forces for my mental health problems. I am a perfectionist, pushing myself hard and only accepting being the best at everything. While this could be perceived as a good thing, it means I can never be truly satisfied with my achievements because either I only attain what I expected, or I don’t do as well as I believe I should. 

Furthermore, my social anxiety has become progressively worse, meaning that my automatic answer to social invitations is always “no”. This often leaves me feeling lonely and isolated. I feel ashamed of the excuses I make to avoid social occasions or anything that might put me out of my comfort zone. I feel the need to be in control, so when anything outside of my power occurs I find it very hard to deal with, leading to feelings of panic. 

Ironically, while I want to be in complete control, the reality is that sometimes I’m not in control at all. I do everything to excess and lack the self-confidence to accept that I’ve done enough. Running a marathon doesn’t daunt me, but going to the pub with a group of people does. Every “fresh start” I’ve promised to make, whether that be at the transition from school to university, or simply a decision to challenge my restrictive behaviour in some way, has seemed to end in disappointment. So perhaps I ought to modify my original statement – I am a very successful 21-year-old in all things except for being kind to myself.

Being open helps

One thing which has made a huge positive difference is opening up to others about my situation. My tutor knows about my mental health difficulties and has been extremely supportive, guiding me through applying for alternative examination arrangements to make exams easier to cope with, working with the catering team to help me through my eating disorder, and generally being someone to talk to. For the first time, this academic year, I registered myself as having a disability with the university disability services. Through this, I have received a lot of advice and support, such as “check in” emails to make sure I am alright, and workshops to manage stress and depression. This has encouraged me to acknowledge my disability in my PhD application, ensuring that by the time I start there will be a support network in place. Over time, I have realised that I won’t be penalised for having a disability which isn’t necessarily visible. Being open about such matters can only help by ensuring that there are measures and people ready to help to guide me through the darkest times. I know recovery is a long process, that I won’t just wake up one day with the depression gone, but I also know that it is possible. I used to mourn the happy-go-lucky, smiley girl I was as a child, but now I know that she is still somewhere inside me, and maybe over time, with the right treatment, she will return. 

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