If Perfectionism were a person, I’d slap her. I’d flush her head down the toilet and muss up her hair and squirt ketchup in her eyes. I’d scuff her shoes and force her to return her library books late. I’d make her walk on cracks and eat spaghetti with her fingers and colour outside the lines until she finally promised to Just Stop Trying. To Get It Wrong. And to stop ruining my life.
Ms P and I have grown up together. For a long time I even considered her a friend. We met in the playground, where she taught me how to tidy the sand pit. Then she started coming home after school. Staying over. And finally, moving in.
At secondary school, people told me how lucky I was to have her. I wish I had your will-power, they said. She was my ticket to all the best parties. Success. Achievement. Self-confidence. Acceptance. But what she whispered in my ear was very different. ‘Try harder. Aim higher. Not good enough.’
She set me targets: both personal and academic. Be nicer. Score better. Fix your hair. Lose weight. Stop slouching.
I told myself she was doing it because she wanted my best.
Except that my best wasn’t good enough. Nothing ever was.
Here’s what else she says; ‘You’re special. You’re different.’ But as it turns out, that’s a line too. In fact, Ms P has hundreds of other friends. We might not know each other – but she’s made us all the same promises. And she’s fed us all the same lies.
Tonight the BBC is airing a documentary on Victoria Pendleton – the most successful British female track cyclist of all time. Here’s her CV;
- Started grass track cycling at the age of nine with her twin brother
- Won one bronze and three silver medals in the British National Track Championships in 2001
- Sixth in the time trial and ninth in the women’s 200m sprint at the 2004 Olympics
- Won gold in the individual sprint at the 2008 Olympics
- Has finished on the sprint podium at every World Championship since 2005
- One Olympic gold and nine world titles
You can bet your bottom dollar that Pendleton has sacrificed everything to get where she is. She’s Ms P’s protege, the poster-girl for perfection. She worked hard and never settled. And now, she’s made it. She’s the best of the best. Everything she ever worked for is hers – prizes, popularity and success. With so many achievements, surely her only issue now is fitting her head through the door?
Not so. The Olympic gold-winning medalist says that she is terrified of being a ‘letdown’. Even in her sleep, she dreams of being chased. Speaking to the BBC, she says this:
“When I am at competition, I spend a lot of time questioning myself…I seek approval in the people around me. It really matters what they think. I want them to be proud of me and I want them to be pleased with what I’ve done.
I compete in a sport on an individual basis but I have never done it for me. I was always cycling for my dad. Then the coaches got bigger and my results got better. Suddenly the responsibility grows and I’m doing it for somebody else, I’m doing it for a programme, I’m doing it for the country, I’m doing it for, like, everybody.”
Ms P says it’ll all be worth it. The work, the exercise, the incessant trying.
But it never is.
You see, if failure’s not an option, then success won’t work either.