Perfectionism; or, On Being A Girlyswot

I grew up knowing the word “girlyswot” – a girl who studied hard for her grades, and cared for them. A lot.

My girlyswot nature came out to play last night when I got back a uni assignment and received 80%Β for it.

80 Percent

I have a childhood friend who used to say, “If you get 60%, it means you studied 10% too hard.” Not only is his maths faulty (think about it…) but the attitude is alien to me. Yeah, sure, “Ps get degrees” is the mantra of student support staff, but somehow – and not unreasonably, given my past performance – anything less than a “HD” seems like failure.

Yes, yes, I heard what I just wrote. I’m not saying this level of perfectionism is a good thing! I’m just saying that it’s part of my perpetual “depression goggles“: if I don’t get superb grades for academic work, I feel as though I’ve failed. Ridiculous, right? (Especially when my running grade for the subject is still at 88.6%. I just did that calculation as a self-soothing measure! Yes, join me in laughing at myself.)

I understand this dysfunctional dynamic, I know where it comes from, and I manage my mood around it. I mean, seriously: 80% is not a bad grade. I am proud that I managed to feel annoyed and amused last night, and prevented a great weight of self-loathing descending upon me.

Juan Blea, one of my favourite bloggers, wrote an excellent piece about failure lately – well worth a look. This morning, I am thinking about the value I can receive from academic “failure”. Here’s my list so far:

  • It highlights my girlyswot nature and the fact that I am being a perfectionist. These are good things to be aware of, because they are examples of distorted thinking which need to be challenged
  • I really, really learn from the feedback I get on assignments, because I want each successive one to be excellent. (That was one thing which annoyed me about this grade: I only got one sentence of feedback! Still, it was a short assignment.)
  • It gives me cause to think about other ways the “raging success or utter depression” dynamic plays out in my life. This is very useful for a depressed person!
  • My husband always finds it amusing. It’s nice to make a man laugh.

I think there’ll always be a part of me which is a “girlyswot” and strives for academic perfection. However, I hope that over time the level of perfectionism in other arenas of my life gets dialed back.

Do you have an area of your life which you’re a perfectionist in?


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16 responses to “Perfectionism; or, On Being A Girlyswot

  1. I had very similar experiences while at uni – I think for me it came down to the fact that it felt like grades were the one thing in life that I could control, and in many ways my average was all I had going for me, so when I slipped I got pretty upset.

    In some ways however I am not sure it is all together a bad thing – I needed something to focus on and investing my time in uni was far from the worst decision I have ever made.


  2. I like your list of the positives of your “failure” and it’s great you can recognise that objectively it isn’t a bad grade.
    Growing up I was a total swot. I even completed my school work before attempting suicide. My intelligence became my defining feature so when I became unwell and was hospitalised I thought my life was over. I couldn’t go to sixth form, the manic work I submitted didn’t make any sense and when I fell into depression I couldn’t even read. I couldn’t see it at the time but having my mental capacities taken from me was actually a blessing. I had to discover other aspects of my identity.
    I am still a perfectionist, it just takes a different form. I procrastinate so that when I hurriedly write an assignment I can blame any poor grade on lack of time rather than lack of intelligence (some how I still get good grades).
    Combatting perfectionism is a work in progress but blogging has actually helped. I intentionally don’t check my posts before I press submit (I usually read them back later and edit them though) and I have to deal with readers potentially writing negative things (thankfully it hasn’t happened yet). My blog is about working towards recovery/a better quality of life. Not having a “perfect” blog and dealing with fears of being negatively judged are part of that.


    • Oh Lauren, it sounds like you and I have a lot in common! And in common with many other sufferers of depression I’ve come across, too. I’m really impressed that you use your blogging as an opportunity to practice not being “perfect”. I, too, procrastinate in order to not *have* to be perfect … hilarious. This isn’t too bad in an academic setting, because I have the skills to do OK even if I do procrastinate, but in other areas of life is a problem.

      I’m about to head over and follow your blog so we can keep talking about the stuff we have in common, and share strategies for challenging those troublesome traits! πŸ™‚


  3. I’ve always been a perfectionist, for as long as I can remember. I won’t even try something if I don’t think I can do well at it–which is, of course, ridiculous, because how do you know if you’ll be good if you’ve never tried it? I’ve gotten better about it over the last several years, but it’s still a struggle a lot of the time.


    • I think it’s something many of “we the depressed” suffer with. I’m reading an excellent book – “Depression: The Curse of the Strong” – which deals with a particular type of depression, that caused by chronic long-term stress with poor coping mechanisms. I’m going to write a review when I get around to it, but it really is a great read, and names perfectionism as a problem trait, when it gets out of hand.


  4. Very good blog. Have a wonderful weekend. Hugs, Barbara


  5. S

    I suppose I’m a “girlyswot”. I am obsessive about my grades, but I’ve tried to see it as a positive thing (since I have shown no signs of changing, haha). It forces me to try and push myself to always do the best that I can do.

    It does get annoying sometimes, as I am fearful of getting my grades back and what I might do if I get a grade I am not happy with. Thankfully, so far, my hard work has been paying off.

    ps. 80% is not a bad grade at all! πŸ™‚


    • Indeed! Ah, it’s good to be able to laugh at oneself.

      I’m pleased your hard work has paid off. I really feel for people who try so hard and don’t get rewarded for it. They have something to be truly aggrieved about, and I’d imagine there would also be a certain frustrated helplessness in that situation.


  6. rod

    I wrote quite a long response to this and posted it, only to receive the message ‘sorry, this comment could not be posted’. But when I go back a page it has disappeared entirely. This happens quite a lot, I haven’t figured out why, but it annoys me a lot that I keep falling for it. Maybe the sign of a perfectionist streak?


    • Oh what a nuisance! I am sorry you had that experience. I would have been interested in reading what you had to say. Still, it is nice to hear from you, Rod. Hope all is well in your world.


  7. rod

    This was the gist of it. It can happen that 50% is regarded as a pass. So someone achieving this mark knows only half of whatever it is. What about the other half? We would like to be operated on by a surgeon who only half-knew what he was doing? In some situations, aiming much higher is less perfectionist than entirely logical. But I put it better than this the first time.


  8. I suppose it tells you something when I wince at your statement that 80% is not a bad grade? Sigh. Yes, I have been a perfectionist with grades. But in my head that still seems reasonable. Granted, I’ve been out of test-taking mode for a long time, but…it always seemed like if my best was 100%, and I did less than 100%, then wasn’t I letting myself down?

    I’m sure there are half dozen flaws in my logic there. I can tell there are – I just can’t tease them out at the moment. But I accept that this is probably unhealthy thinking.

    Like one of the other commenters above, I’m so adverse to failing that I don’t like to try anything new. And I get veerrryyy anxious about trying new things, especially in front of new people.


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