‘My brain feels like it’s been punched’: the intolerable rise of perfectionism

Paula Cocozza:

Tom Nicol thought he had a problem with sleep. He could never get enough. He took “a very disciplined, stripped approach” to his routine. He drank water only at premeditated times, ate according to schedule, avoided caffeine, exercised (but not close to bedtime) and shut down all screens at 9pm. Nicol, a PhD student, was recounting this long list of sleep settings to his student counsellor after yet another bad night, when she told him: “You have perfectionism.”

“I’m not good enough to have perfectionism,” Nicol replied.

It was “one of the most perfectionist things you can say”, he says now. At the time, though, the discovery took Nicol by surprise. He shared his surprise with his partner. “She was like: ‘Well, duh!’” But he needed to be convinced.

On the phone, Nicol, 25, has a persuasive and clear-eyed sense of his own averageness. He is “not particularly” industrious, “quite” messy and has “never been the kind of person who was seen as one of the top achievers”, he says. He recounts these perceived shortcomings with an amiable ease that sounds a lot like contentment. But maybe this, too, is a perfectionist sleight of hand, to present persistent self-criticism as casual self-deprecation. I arrange to visit Nicol at the University of York, where he is in the second year of his doctorate in theoretical chemistry.