​Neurodiversity at University: On Perfectionism

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with control. At nursery, I’d spend ages tidying up, making sure that toys were put in boxes with the correct labels. At primary school, I had to make sure that my colouring in was exactly within the lines. If I made the tiniest mistake, my picture would end up in the bin. When it came to school exams, I needed top marks in order to not brand myself a failure. I’m often called a ‘control freak’, but I prefer to say that I’m a perfectionist.

If I didn’t have Asperger’s syndrome, I’d probably still be a perfectionist, but my reactions towards what I perceive as failure would probably be less severe. One of the reasons why perfectionism is so rife among those with Asperger’s syndrome is because of our tendency to see things in ‘black and white’ terms. For me, when it comes to completing a task, it must be done perfectly or not at all. There are no ‘grey areas’, and this is especially true when it comes the things I’m passionate about. This means that in my mind, getting a B grade for an essay can be devastating – I tell myself that if I can’t do something perfectly, I might as well fail at it.

I’m not alone in this. I spoke to women with Asperger’s syndrome about perfectionism on an online forum, and many of them reported setting extremely high standards for themselves, and feeling like failures when they didn’t achieve them. One wrote, ‘I was a bit disappointed when I did my Anatomy exam because I got 90%’. Another said that she ‘still hasn’t forgiven [her dissertation tutor] for a comment on a grammar issue’, even though she says it’s ‘embarrassingly petty’. Fear of failure resulted in a lack of trying for some, with another member writing, ‘I want things to be perfect, but a lot of the time, I know that quest for perfection isn’t possible, so it puts me off doing things from the start’.

I think that the root of my own perfectionism lies in a lack of self-confidence, from a feeling of being incompetent to deal with life’s challenges. I grew up with four very independent siblings and, for as long as I remember, I saw them doing things that I couldn’t do. I recall them getting weekend jobs, travelling the world, and being able to maintain healthy friendships and relationships. I wasn’t capable of those things, but at least I was good at the one thing that really interested me: reading, quoting, and analysing literature.

My special interest was the one thing no one could take away from me. I might not be able to spend eight weeks backpacking in Canada, but I could tell you the entire plot of Ulysses in detail. For me, this was my safety net, my validation.

The result of my perfectionism can be nothing short of catastrophic. As mentioned, anyone can struggle with perfectionism. However, the reactions of individuals with Asperger’s can be more severe, especially when it concerns their special interest. I’ve had my mum travel for hours to console me for getting B1s on essays. I’ve expressed no will to live after not improving on my test scores. Too often I’ve adopted the ‘if I can’t succeed at this, I can’t succeed at anything’ mentality. I’ve allowed my self worth to plummet for months after a few negative comments from a tutor, even though a subject such as English Literature is highly subjective anyway.

But I’m beginning to learn that if I seek validation through something that’s external to me, I’ll never be truly content. Achieving perfection gives me a short-lived sense of achievement, but the fix always runs out, with the pressure to achieve renewing with each new challenge. I’m only now realising that there’s no point in thinking that if I did X differently, it’d have amounted to Y, which would change the outcome of Z. I’m beginning to see that it’s not my work that needs to change – it’s my outlook.

So instead of stating what I’m not (a failure or an underachiever), I’m going to write what I am. I am a student of English Literature, and I don’t fulfil my academic expectations all of the time. I am also funny and quirky. As much as I thrive on routine, I am willing to deviate from it if a friend is in need. I have an eye for detail, meaning that I’m great at choosing (and wearing) clothes. I am at the early stages of learning to bake, and I’m actually really good at it. I can write columns, and I can swim one hundred and twenty lengths in an Olympic pool without stopping. I am also sensitive, meaning that I’m great with animals and kids. I am loved, cherished, and people look up to me, and I give lots of love and admiration for others in return. I am Sarinah, and I’m imperfectly perfect.  

I still struggle with perfectionism considerably, but I don’t catastrophise to the same extent anymore. Through arduous effort, I’m learning to accept things as they are. Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to realise that by allowing for grey areas, I’m starting to see the rainbow more clearly than ever.

[Sarinah O’Donoghue]

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