Fear and Self Loathing

What holds me back from being who I could be?

(This post forms part of an assessment submission for a Master of Education subject)

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.
~Salvador Dali

Growing up, I always tried to be good because I was terrified of getting in trouble; desperate to fit in and to be loved an accepted. This could be argued as the product of self punishment when I didn’t achieve high enough or comply and perhaps as the outcome of a religious schooling (all controversial and probably debatable at some level). I have always been a gentle and generous soul who sets expectations that are far too high leading to a self perception of ‘failure’ or inadequacy. My childhood was not bad per se but I did develop a mantra that what I do is never ever good enough. This pattern has led me into the depths of depression… And unable to see what I can do and the difference that I make.

While teaching started as a fall back career for me it has been something that I have grown into and while I can’t say I had terrible teachers, I had very few that really and truly inspired me towards that career path. There are two that stand out to me now and reflecting on my experiences I think they stand out because they are most like the ‘teacher’ that I am or just strive to be.

Year 2 – My teacher recognised that I was creative and would ask for my input into art projects. There was a bit of an issue when I started to draw Adam and Eve (for a class mural) in beautiful clothes! When I got in trouble from the headmaster’s wife during chapel for platting the hair of a classmate, I was mortified at my apparently ‘epic’ failure but my teacher was gentle and kind in response. Something that looking back I think I needed a bit more of.

Year 12 – My Studies of Religion teacher again had a gentle manner but was also well in control of my somewhat rebellious class. He offered inspired learning for those who wanted it. It was in this class that I first developed a love for philosophy and I earned my only ever A+ at school for an essay exam about philosophers. I was surprised because I was only writing about something I found interesting and was not aiming that high. I achieved well and did not put too much pressure on myself – a rare occurrence and a lesson from this teacher on ‘how to be’.

Reflecting on the first 20 years or so of my life, I realise that I had invested my identity heavily into what I thought were the expectations of others. While I did have a say in where I was going I was not really allowing myself to be because I was too busy trying to be whatever it was I thought I should be. Although I was really quite a ‘good girl’, I was overly paranoid that I would disappoint almost everyone in my life. At times this was quite crippling. Somewhere deep inside, I knew that I could do wonderful things with my life and achieve success but my fear of failure and disappointing others has often led me to not take risks and even to block myself from doing the things that I want to do. Setting high standards is something that is valued by society but when nothing less than perfect will do, perfectionism can lead to depression because it can make an individual overly self critical (Melrose, 2011). Depression is something that I have battled now for many years.

“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
~Harriet Braiker

My perfectionist tendencies seem to be a combination of self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism as described by Melrose (2011). I am overly critical of myself often to the point of not being able to recognise when I do achieve well because it never lives up to what I expect of myself. I would also categorise myself as a socially-prescribed perfectionist because I often perceive that others also expect a high standard of me. This makes it very difficult to accept any form of praise and I get confused when I’m complimented rather than given harsh feedback as I constantly expect negative consequences (Melrose, 2011). In the workplace, self-oriented perfectionism can interact with a number of variables negatively with outcomes such as perceived failure and maladaptive coping styles (Fairlie & Flett, 2003).

Perfectionists often base their sense of self-worth on being successful, productive and working towards their goals (Melrose, 2011). For me this has been almost a constant ‘need’. It has taken some time for me to be able to define myself beyond just my professional identity and to value my identity as friend, partner, mother etc. Letting go and letting myself relax is often a challenge and sometimes I appear calm but am actually working on about 5 different things in my mind at the same time.

Every time someone introduces me as an expert or guru I cringe, in part because I don’t feel I could ever know enough or do enough to truly have that label, and also because my belief that knowledge is a fluid entity and socially constructed amongst many therefore rendering the idea of a guru invalid (See Socially Constructed World). It makes me want to deny the label when I would probably be best off accepting it as the compliment that it was probably intended as. An interest or fascination with an idea is fine. If only an introduction to me could instead be: “This is Amanda, she’s obsessed with the effect of technologies on how people live and learn and also finds reading curriculum documents and educational research very interesting”.

In pondering my perfectionist tendencies, I created the diagram below. It’s not perfect but I guess it will do.

If I'd had more time this diagram would have been so much better!


What often holds me back professionally is a reluctance or uncertainty to take risks, even when I know I really should. Schools and the teachers within them are not know for their risk taking, especially when the perceived losses from a failed venture are seen as too high or changes just too hard (Ponticell, 2003). Risk taking in order to innovate pushes the boundaries of practice (and perhaps identity) and change could be argued to be seen as a loss of control (Ponticell, 2003). I’ve always encouraged teachers to take risks and yet have been too afraid to take them myself! So this blog is step one; a small risk perhaps, but when I consider the years of self torture about not sharing enough it is actually quite momentous.

Since becoming a mother I have been forced to ‘let go’ of my perfectionist tendencies, perhaps a little. While I was pregnant (and incredibly ill) I was terrified about my impending identity and role of ‘mother’. I was scared that I would not be perfect and that this would do a disservice to my child; that she wouldn’t grow up to be all that she could be. After a very dark depressive episode and some counseling, I’m no longer afraid. I’ve relaxed and am enjoying my time and new identity. To be a perfect mother is too difficult but being a mother who makes sure that her child is above anything else, well-loved is my goal and to focus on just that as often as I can.

While it will not ever be good enough… this assignment and actually starting this blog is somewhat of a small victory in my quest to not expect too much of myself to ‘feel the fear do it anyway’… and not obsess about the outcomes… or rather, not obsess as much. Ironically, in addressing my fear of sharing – I think I have just over shared!

References in this post:

Fairlie, P. & Flett, G. (2003, August). Perfectionism at work. Paper presented at the 111th. Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association at Toronto, Ontario, Canada, August, 2003. Retrieved from: http://paulfairlieconsulting.com/docs/Perfectionism%20At%20Work-Impacts%20On%20Burnout,%20Job%20Satisfaction%20and%20Depression.pdf

Melrose, S. (2011). Perfectionism and Depression: Vulnerabilities Nurses Need to Understand. Nursing Research and Practice, 2011, doi: 10.1155/2011/858497

Ponticell, J. (2003). Enhancers and Inhibitors of Teacher Risk Taking: A Case Study. Peabody Journal of Education78(3), 5-24. doi: 10.1207/S15327930PJE7803_02


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