Comment & Analysis
Dec 4, 2019

As a Perfectionist, Trinity Can Be a Nightmare

The mindset of 'everything I do has to be done perfectly' is harmful, writes Emer Moreau – beating yourself up won't help you achieve your goals.

Emer MoreauSenior Editor
Róisín Power for The University Times

If you’re reading this, I’m already panicking.

Is this opinion piece interesting? Is it well written? Do I sound too whiny? Too pedantic? Does it sound like I’m trying too hard to be funny? Did I waste time on it that I could have spent working on an assignment? Am I going to get a decent mark in said assignment? If I did abandon this opinion piece for my assignment, is my CV going to be lacking in the extracurriculars department and cost me a decent job down the line?

I apologise, reader, for descending into hysterics in front of you, but this is the kind of thing that runs through my head on a daily basis, and the more it happens the more the people around me pick up on it, and the more it seems as though I’m not the only one who gets like this. There are certain things about Trinity student life that, I feel, nurture a culture of “you must do everything, and everything you do, you must do to an impossibly high standard”.


The most obvious one is studying. Most Trinity students hold themselves to very high standards in terms of academics. I’m not suggesting that we care more about grades than students in other colleges, but when you’re in a university where the mean number of attained leaving certificate points is 520 out of a maximum 625, it’s inevitable that you will encounter a lot of diligent studiers. You are also going to meet people who reel in high marks again and again without studying at all. And I, a mere mortal who slaved for hours in the Berkeley to scrape a pass, must coexist alongside them.

You must excel at The Thing. If The Thing were added to the Olympics tomorrow, you should be good enough to compete

Trinity cultivates an “all or nothing” environment. You don’t need me to tell you that reading out names at the graduation ceremony by degree and not alphabetical order is dreadfully pretentious and unnecessary. We have ceremonies for students who achieve the highest number of leaving certificate points in their school, by which time the leaving certificate is a distant memory anyway.

Schols is heralded as “the most prestigious undergraduate award in the country”. The person sitting next to me in the library, as I contemplate selling my soul for a 2.1, could be the recipient of the most prestigious undergraduate award in the country! How am I supposed to compete with that? While anyone who achieves these things should be commended, such an emphasis on being the best in any given category gives students a false reality of what it means to be successful.

In terms of coursework, I can only speak from my own experience as a student of English literature, but I would have been saved a lot of stress if someone had told me that no one actually reads the entire list of secondary reading for each module. In fact, most people don’t manage to get through the primary reading. Is it possible, in theory, to do so? Yes. Would it involve dedicating all your energy to one module and foregoing several other aspects of your life? Probably. College is a constant game of catch up, of passing on one thing to spend time on another, and not being able to dedicate all your time and energy to one or two things.

As someone who is something of a chaotic perfectionist, this doesn’t sit well with me. I loathe half-doing things, and my skin practically crawls when I hand in an essay that I know is not researched, written or presented as well as it could or should be. I may sound like a Mary Sue, but I don’t think beating yourself up for failing to meet your goals is a part of the Mary Sue stereotype.

The feeling of frustration and self-loathing when you get an essay back and realise you made a mistake in a bibliography that cost you a couple of marks

During one of the many unnecessary introductory talks I apparently had to attend during my first freshers’ week last year, I was told that in order to flourish in Trinity, I should partake in three extracurriculars – a sport, a charitable organisation and a personal hobby. The thing is, though, that Trinity’s definition of “partake” seems to mean “do The Thing to an almost-professional standard. You must excel at The Thing. If The Thing were added to the Olympics tomorrow, you should be good enough to compete”. Casual dabbling in hobbies or interests simply isn’t the done thing around here.

I realise, too, that even being able to spend time on extracurriculars is a luxury, since many of my peers spend all their spare time working to afford to live in this godforsaken city. And yet many of the same people are effortlessly balancing 20 or more working hours a week with rehearsals or committee meetings or training or whatever they choose to pursue. The same people have a healthy social life, get to the gym a few times a week and still find the time and energy for that tiny afterthought known as studying.

When you hold yourself to impossibly high standards, feeling guilty for not achieving everything you intended to achieve in one day, week or month becomes routine. You curse yourself for getting distracted in the library, for zoning out during that lecture, for spending longer eating lunch than a productive person should. The feeling of frustration and self-loathing when you get an essay back and realise you made a mistake in a bibliography that cost you a couple of marks. You misread your lecture timetable and miss a class. Or, alternatively, you skip the class and spend the rest of the day dwelling on how you’ve completely lost the run of yourself and don’t care about academics at all anymore. Shame on you. Being a self-professed perfectionist isn’t a brag, it’s exhausting. It’s not a strength (unless you’re in a job interview and are being asked to describe your biggest weakness, apparently).

I often feel like I expend more energy obsessing over what I didn’t do or did poorly in a day than what I actually did do. Letting go of a perfectionist streak is hard, but I’m slowly learning to be less hard on myself. I’ll save the cliched message of self-love and self-care, but I will include this thought: 10 minutes of yoga is better than nothing if you can’t face an hour at the gym. Going to a lecture and paying attention for the first 20 minutes and then succumbing to the lure of your Twitter feed is better than not going at all. The mindset of “everything I do has to be done perfectly” is a very harmful one, and it has resulted in me being constantly at war with myself. Beating yourself up definitely isn’t going to help you achieve your goals. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly, because doing it poorly is better than not doing it at all.

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