Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021
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COURTESY OF ABIGAIL TUSCHMAN

Tuschman learns that her tendency to procrastinate stems from a fear of failure.

When I was 5 years old, I wished upon a shooting star. I was swimming in my backyard at night and saw a flash in the sky. Now that I’m older, I’m pretty sure it was just the blinking lights of a commercial airplane, but that possibility didn’t occur to me then. I had watched enough Disney Channel to be convinced my life was about to change.

I tipped my chin up to the sky, closed my eyes and asked to be good at everything. I wanted to be pretty, smart, funny, kind and athletic. I wanted to have it all. 

Believing that my wish would come true and my transformation was underway, I started holding myself to very high standards. Whenever I struggled to understand a concept in school or wasn’t the star player on my soccer team, I became frustrated. In my mind, my worth was directly tied to my ability. If I lacked the latter, I couldn’t have the former.

Though I no longer think wishing on a meteor (or a Boeing 737) can change my life, I still haven’t stopped being a perfectionist, particularly when it comes to school.

Like with most things, perfectionism can be helpful in small doses. In fact, I used to see it as one of my more positive attributes. It allowed me to do well on school projects, have neat penmanship and carefully choose my words before I spoke. But as time went on, my perfectionism became suffocating, paralyzing. And now that I’m in college, my unrealistic expectations of success are preventing me from achieving it.

When I’m faced with a looming paper deadline, I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on a blank word document, too afraid to begin. I write a few words, then delete. Maybe I get to a couple sentences, then I hold down the backspace button again. Nothing is ever good enough. I procrastinate until the time crunch lets me excuse my subpar work. I reassure myself it’s not a reflection of my true ability.

When my organic chemistry professor starts talking about diastereomers and I become utterly confused, panic begins in my chest and raises my heart rate. But rather than cracking open my textbook or looking up YouTube videos on the topic, I start to zone out during lectures. I avoid practice problems. The potential for failure, in a contradictory and self-defeating way, keeps me from trying.

I’m not proud of my procrastination in the slightest. When I realize I’ve turned yet another due date into a “do date,” I feel disgusted with myself. I begin to doubt whether I can ever make it in the real world — if my procrastination is a sign of some inherent laziness I’ll never be able to shake.

Recently, after rushing to turn in a paper a mere hour before it was due, I asked myself why I always end up in these situations. I have deadlines and exam dates written in red marker in my planner. I create plenty of to-do lists. I want to do well. So why do I keep sabotaging myself?

Then I had an epiphany. My procrastination isn’t a sign of deep-seated indolence. Rather, I subconsciously avoid putting my full effort into anything important because I am afraid of learning that my best isn’t good enough — and, by extension, that I’m not good enough. I still haven’t shed this idea that my value is dependent on my ability.

I want to stop procrastinating, but I don’t think I can break the habit by downloading productivity apps and spending hours in Brody every day (strategies I’ve attempted in the past to no avail). As cheesy as it sounds, I think the issue goes deeper than that. 

I think I have to learn that, although my academic success is important to me, it isn’t all of me. My value stems from more than the grades I get on presentations and midterms. If I keep relying on academic validation to boost my self-esteem, I will never be truly content.

The version of me that was 5 years old, wishing she was good at everything because she thought that was what mattered, still exists somewhere inside me. And I can’t let her go on wrongly believing that she must live up to a standard of perfection. She deserves better, and so do I.

Abigail Tuschman is a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. majoring in Writing Seminars. She is the Voices Editor for The News-Letter. Her column documents the ups and downs of her college experience.

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