A look beneath the surface
Ironically, it’s taken me a long time to write this. Perfectionism combined with anxiety is a potent recipe for procrastination. In this article, I talk about my experiences of procrastination and what I think is happening beneath the surface.
Procrastination is a light-hearted subject and I think it’s safe to say that everyone experiences it at some point, but what if you find yourself procrastinating every time a deadline approaches? Or further yet, procrastinating about anything to do with your future? Is it simply a case of lacking focus? No, in fact people often procrastinate over the things they love. There is a lot happening beneath the surface of this seemingly harmless behaviour.
University is an extremely exciting time of growth and development. It is an opportunity to network and learn the skills which will be carried forward into our careers and the rest of our lives. For many, however, the experience can create feelings of anxiety caused by the pressure of achievement and expectations from others. Universities are highly selective, evaluative, and competitive environments, and awards and recognition are limited. It’s not surprising, then, that this often creates anxiety and affects many people’s sense of self-worth. University is a golden opportunity, and because of this, failure can feel like an impending doom. I argue that when we attach our self-worth to our academic achievements, we will inevitably procrastinate.
An evolutionary look at anxiety
The amygdala is the part of our brain partly responsible for processing memory, decision-making and emotional responses. The coupling of decision-making and emotional responses serves to keep us from harm; however, it becomes far less useful without imminent threat to our existence. And so, it is in our amygdala that we find our much beloved anxiety. Oh universe, we know you meant well…
Anxiety is a bit of an umbrella term, but if I had to simplify it - in its essence, anxiety is when the mind goes into fight, flight or freeze response because it perceives a threat. It’s an evolutionary mechanism to keep us alive and is alert if ever we should need it. There are situations in life, however, when anxiety is the last thing we need… and yet, our amygdala becomes triggered and releases an anxious response. These can be situations we are all too familiar with - exams… driving… social events… writing a blog for the student personal development project… to name a few. These situations often cause our brains to perceive a threatening stimulus.
Fortunately, we students have little to fear in the face of losing our lives. So why then, do we still experience fear in these situations? We may fear a task which seems overwhelming, unachievable, or displeasing. But if we go deeper still, what do we fear about something which seems overwhelming? There’s no harm in trying… or is there? What about failure…
Fear of failure
Ah failure, good old fear of failure. I would argue that this is the single most common fear which holds us back from reaching our full potential… and ironically, leads us to inevitable failure. But what is so scary about failure? So what if you don’t achieve excellence? The world isn’t going to end. In fact, life will go on, and you may find a passion for something totally different. However, it can be hard to see this as a student when we are constantly and consistently judged, monitored, and appointed places in a hierarchical system of ‘success’.
Capitalist ideologies of success, such as achieving high grades, working hard, earning a high income, and owning nice things - succeeds in producing a well-oiled societal machine and a healthy economy, but doesn’t necessarily reflect what we value as individuals. Despite this, it is easy to become consumed with striving to attain these goals and lose our humanistic love for our individual passions and simple pleasures in the process.
Many of us pin our self-worth on the social construct of ‘success’. This is problematic, because when we consider our performance level and achievements to be what determines our worth, we fear failure, and procrastinate. To under-achieve will somehow reduce our worth as human beings (which, when considered out loud, sounds absurd!). In some way, procrastination could be considered a mechanism of self-preservation - a way of protecting our self-worth.
A toxic combination
It’s not only anxiety in this lovely melting pot of procrastination, we also find a good dose of perfectionism in there.
Don’t get me wrong, healthy perfectionism can be motivating, but extreme perfectionism is toxic. It is an internal drive to achieve unrealistically high expectations and virtually unattainable goals, caused by the fear of failure and harsh judgement. Perfectionism can manifest through seeking misplaced approval and affection based on academic outcomes or other forms of success, and can lead to anxiety around not fulfilling these high standards. This fear leads to procrastination and avoidance, and can knock your self-esteem.
While perfectionism demands excellence for approval, anxiety feeds off the fear of not achieving it. This pattern of thought exaggerates future difficulties into a chain-reaction of fears and can make small challenges feel much larger and overwhelming – adding to the strong urge to procrastinate.
Understanding the route of procrastination helps to weaken it, therefore an element of self-awareness can help to reduce anxiety and keep things in perspective. Studies have shown that changing our perception of what it means to achieve can be helpful in maintaining a positive self-image. Does success always have to be attained in the future? What about the success you have already achieved? University, friends, cooking, exploring new environments... Or further, have you taken a moment to enjoy the process? Learning feels amazing, and there are many opportunities for fascinating conversations with peers and lecturers at university. Broaden your mind and learn to accept academic outcomes, and place value and self-worth on other experiences which are special and unique to you. Get to know yourself and what you value, and focus on enjoying this. Once we relax, hurdles no longer seem quite so overwhelming, and we come to find that situations aren’t as bad as we had imagined – resulting in the experience of more joy and fulfilment.
So, perhaps we should practice failure and try new experiences! Stuff the well-oiled machine of society.
Here is a short list of things I found helpful when addressing my perfectionist tendencies:
Altering self-talk, praise rather than punish, compliment rather than critique.
Celebrate the failures too.
Use goals as guides, not absolutes.
Laugh at yourself.
Enjoy the process.
Written by Daisy Rees
The conversations we are not having
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