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I procrastinate because I often confuse success with perfection

I procrastinate because I often confuse success with perfection
May 16, 2019 513 views

Perfectionism, anxiety, and completing tasks

It is finals season and graduation season! It is a time of stress and enjoyment. It is a time of transition--from one semester to the next, from undergrad to graduate school, from school to the workforce. 

For myself, I make a list of things I need to accomplish and just by making this list I feel extremely productive. Sometimes the said list is color-coordinated, bulleted, and categorized. I hang it on the wall next to my desk in my home office. I get excited to cross things off the list. But here is the problem: I get scared to start things and complete them. 

This may sound really weird; however, I feel like once again, I am not alone. When I make a list of things to do, all of a sudden, I am overwhelmed by all the things that I wrote down. Yes, I know I said I like crossing things off. But whenever I sit down to actually do the work, I have so much written down that I don't know where to begin. So, I don't start at all! 

I know that in order to accomplish all of my dreams and goals, I actually have to do the work. So, why I am scared to do the work that I wrote down in the first place?

My theory is that I know that when I sit down and start work on these tasks, I will have to sacrifice something, and even with that sacrifice, there is no guarantee of success. Basically, I am afraid of failure. And if I were to dig even deeper into that phrase, I would realize I am more scared of what would happen if I do not fail. 

So, to avoid figuring any of this out, I prefer to procrastinate. Procrastination is different for different people. However, for me it means avoiding my possible success. I know for certain, that sounds crazy! Why would I be fearful of success if that is the whole point of this thing? 

Well, for me, my previous mistakes have become a part of my identity; I wouldn't know how to be a successful version of myself. And if I am successful, will folks begin to expect perfection with everything I do? Will my future mistakes be highlighted even more? Will everything I do be invalidated if I mess up after I have become "successful?” So, instead of finding out the answers to these questions, I stay willfully ignorant with inaction. 

The thought of "success" gives me an anxiety attack. If my dreams are to accomplish a certain goal, then why am I afraid of putting in the work to get it done? The answer: I have made perfection synonymous with success. When we see people who have achieved great things, we may not see all the times they "failed." In my head, everything is supposed to come easy and right the first time. I get that that is unrealistic now, but when that is all you have been taught (inadvertently), it is hard to break that train of thought. 

Who else’s parents wanted a 96 if you got a 95? Who got asked, “Who all made a 100? If they can make a 100, so can you!" This mentality of getting it right the first time has been ingrained in us since we were little. As black children, we were/are reminded that we do not get room for mistakes like our white counterparts. We have to work 3x as hard. I had two older sisters who seemingly walked on water and did everything right. Since I was a child, I was so afraid to start something because I thought my goal was to be perfect and not to do my best. 

Now that I am older, I am aware that the lack of transparency of the process is what sets us up for failure. Because the folks who came before us did not tell us how their journey really went. All we saw was their successful outcomes.  But this is not how anything works. I know that is hard to grasp, especially with final papers and presentations looming. I know it is unbearable to think of anything less than perfect, but that does not mean you are not successful. 

We must begin to define success for ourselves--not measure ourselves against others. If you can envision the outcome you are going to be okay with, then anything more is a bonus. And sometimes, the outcome you're okay with is just completing a task and that is alright too. 

Maybe I am the only one afraid of success and it makes me not begin things on my lists. But as I enter my last week of the semester, I am hoping to just start the things on my list and do them to the best of my ability, and not to perfection.


Joy Woods (@smileitsjoy) is a PhD candidate at Moody College of Communication, University of Texas. This story was published on May 6, 2018, on Joy’s blog, withoutaspace (available here), and has been republished her with her permission.

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