For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist. I was creating and grading practice tests for myself in the fourth grade, listened to my mom read The Little Engine That Could at bedtime, and learned from my dad that almost any situation could be handled by the mantra “cowboy up.” One form of this perfectionism manifested itself in my desire for straight A’s, a trend which has continued to feed itself throughout my academic career. As my professors, friends, and parents jovially asked, “You still keeping that 4.0?” I would laugh uneasily and attempt to squelch the fear brewing inside of me. Of course as a rational being I know that my self-worth is not defined by my GPA; I recognize that there are many more important things in life. However, despite my knowledge of Cognitive theories and distortions, I still find myself catastrophizing. What if I make an A-? Will they be disappointed or view me as less intelligent?
Recently I began reading the work of a researcher and professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work, Dr. Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are Brené described words which fit into a column of not living a “wholehearted” life. As I stared at words like “perfection, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, or fitting in,” I couldn’t help but think of my grade quest. Surely she was referring to those late nights I spent obsessing over last minute changes to a paper, my role concerns that others would perceive me differently if I lost the title of “Straight A Student,” or my racing heart as I checked PeopleSoft for my grades at the end of each semester. I was reminded also of another GCSW professor, Sandra Lopez, and her emphasis on self-care in social work. Consciously I was aware of the problems associated with my current pattern and the benefits of practicing a fuller life.
Through my work with clients and my own self-reflection, I have learned that awareness is by no means sufficient for change. For example, a person who smokes cigarettes may already know that she has an increased cancer risk and be aware that she is triggered by a stressful event at work, yet she may not be at all willing to change the behavior (coined precontemplative within the transtheoretical model). Similarly, recognition that I view grades irrationally, reassurance from friends and family that they do not evaluate my worth by my GPA, and knowledge of various self-care practices have not translated into me lounging in a hammock when sleepy and anxious during finals week. Within my courses at the GCSW, several professors have expressed concerns when peers ask questions related to grading and evaluation. “It’s graduate school!” or “You’re here to learn, aren’t you?” are spoken with mild frustration as professors have attempted to sway students from what they seemingly view as clear-cut categories of grade-focused/ extrinsically motivated to learning entirely for the sake of knowledge/intrinsically motivated.
In a required course entitled Contextualized Strengths-Based Practice in Social Work I evaluated factors in legal, political, cultural, and bio-psycho-social realms. As I consider my own context in relation to this issue, I can envision the impact of an over twenty year history with A’s, an individualistic culture which fosters competition, a social circle of high-achieving friends, personality variables such as higher set levels of anxiety, and family values and reinforcement. From my perspective, ignoring contextual factors and attempting to force the viewpoint that grades don’t matter in graduate school is culturally insensitive. Rather than fitting students within neat little categories, professors could take into account the larger context which has supported the importance of grades. Why is it not possible that a student is strongly interested in learning about a subject and yet also cares about his or her grade? There are shades of gray.
Perhaps the most significant consideration that I’ve had within the MSW program is that it fosters self-reflection. Because learning does not occur within a vacuum, I find myself applying the theories and principles that I learn of clinical practice to my own personal and professional life. My field supervisor at Texas Children’s Hospital’s Employee Assistance Program speaks to the importance of setting boundaries between these worlds for risk that one could lose sight of the self. If you forget to take the social worker hat off in the evening, you may end up alienating friends or family whom you begin to treat as clients or may forget the importance of allowing yourself to be human and at times angry and vulnerable. If all social workers could seamlessly apply clinical knowledge to themselves, then there would be no burn-out, compassion fatigue, or therapists who specialize in treating therapists. As one clinician and adjunct GCSW professor suggested, “When in doubt, be human.” Striking a balance will take conscientious practice.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.