Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Perils of Perfectionism

Catrin discusses the effect that anxiety and perfectionism have on university life, and how easy it is to put unnecessary stress on yourself. She explores the high-pressure environment at the University of Oxford, and how stress can be a competitive sport.

- Catrin Haberfield

University is hard. Brilliant, but hard, no matter where you are or what you study. I’m in my third year at Somerville College, Oxford, and I’ve truly loved every minute of it. My course is fantastic – I’ve had the chance to study everything from Beowulf to Dickens, Chaucer to Stoppard, and I’m having a whale of a time researching runic epigraphy for my dissertation. My college is amazing too: the welfare, food, accommodation, and people are all wonderful. But while the past two years have been an absolutely incredible experience, they’ve also been extremely challenging. 

One in four university students experiences mental health issues; at Oxford, it’s closer to one in two. I’m not stating this to gain sympathy, or to try and convince people that Oxford students are ‘special snowflakes’. I know that I’m at quite literally the best university in the world, and I’m proud of my achievements, but it can’t be escaped that standards here are high and so many people push themselves to breaking point just to live up to expectations. To make matters worse, these expectations can often be self-imposed. I definitely think that most Oxford students have a perfectionist streak, but with the sheer amount of work we’re given it’s hard to be 100% on point for every essay, tute sheet, or presentation. All too often, stress becomes competitive, and having four essays and reading list a mile long is worn like a badge of honour. But there’s nothing more futile, nothing more unhelpful, than constant self-deprecation coupled with high expectations.

I’ve lived with anxiety for years, and have struggled with depression and an eating disorder at various points of my life. A lot of these issues stem from perfectionism, and manifest as unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress. Eating disorders and self-harm, for example, often develop as ways to regain control over one part of your life when you feel powerless in other areas. During my first year, my eating disorder developed into bulimia, my depression reached an all-time low, a relationship ended, and my grandfather died. Add all of these things together, and top it off with a healthy dose of two essays a week (plus learning Old English from scratch), and you can see why I struggled. 

But – and this is the important thing – you don’t have to have a mental illness to struggle at uni. You don’t have to be mentally ill to find things hard. Everyone has their own mental health, the same way everyone has their own physical health, and you need to look after both. Stress is a natural part of life, and a certain amount is absolutely a healthy thing. Can you imagine if you didn’t get stressed about anything? You’d never be motivated, or interested, or scared. Life would be boring. But don’t make things harder by putting more pressure on yourself than you need. Set realistic goals, find a balance between work and play, and don’t punish yourself for taking an evening (or even a whole weekend) off. I guess my point is: be nice to yourself. You deserve it.



Hi folks! I'm Catrin, a third year Medieval English Language and Literature student at Somerville College, Oxford. I've always been super vocal when it comes to mental health; I love pushing boundaries and challenging people's assumptions about mental illness. I live with mental illness, so I know how much both the illnesses and the stigma can affect your life, as well as the lives of others. I'm incredibly excited to be a Sub-Editor for Student Minds, and I can't wait to help other people share their stories!

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