Collaging: a method to fight perfectionism

By Katie Keller

To be successful in life you have to care about what you are doing and strive to be the best version of yourself that you can. This implies a degree of perfectionism. As a student-athlete on the women's lacrosse team I can attest to that feeling of wanting to be perfect. For a while, I thought I was just unwilling to settle.

For instance, in the weight room, I thought by refusing to accept my flaws I would propel myself to be better and better. I am most definitely not one of the strongest girls on the team as evidenced by the exercise I dread most: the bench press. This exercise has become the standard for upper body strength and there’s an expectation that we should all be able to put up a certain number - like a 125lb bench - for example. When I look around during our lift session I see girls benching more than that number with ease, and it quickly becomes intimidating. To compare, I look on my rack and there is definitely less than that. Even though I know no one on my team is judging me for not lifting as much, I still feel convinced that they are. Even on the days when I feel really good and think that I can push myself to lift more, I get trapped with the massive weight pushing down on my ribcage and am humbled once again. 

One day, my strength coach purposefully put me across from the group of girls who can bench the most on our team to “motivate” me. It just left me feeling even more inadequate looking at how much they could bench versus my own. I thought that if I was not as strong as everyone else, my strength coach would perceive me as weaker. This is when I fell into this state of thinking that I was not good enough. I started questioning if I was good at anything at all. 

I have realized that this form of self sabotage runs rampant at a competitive and prestigious school like Duke. There is an unspoken rule to project invincibility. It feels like we are supposed to effortlessly manage our academics, athletics, social life, health and wellness and more. Juggling all of these aspects of life is very difficult, especially when you want to be the best at every single one of them. I have come to understand that it is important to recognize our weaknesses because that is what makes us special. I learned this from a team building exercise with our psychologist Dr. Greg Dale. He split our team up into groups of three and told us to tell each other what we find valuable in one another. After talking with two girls on my team, I realized that other people see me as so much more than my weaknesses. This simple conversation allowed me to recognize that I am valued, even though I am not perfect. My bench number is not what defines me. Although I may not be as good at bench pressing as others I have strengths in other areas. Through this simple exercise I was able to stop fixating on my weaknesses and focus more on my strengths. 

Another strength of mine that I learned about during COVID is collaging. It seemed like an easy and fun thing to do. Tearing, cutting, and gluing down random newsletters, brochures, and other pictures to create something totally new is exciting. I never imagined how much it would help me. I found that I could express myself in a way that does not require perfection. When I collage I don't have to obsess over doing it the best possible way; there is no right or wrong. I try to set aside time to make a collage once a month so that I can release my stress and do something creative. I recently made a collage using different Duke related images. Duke students and athletes all have this desire to be perfect. We all hold ourselves to a standard. No one deems this standard perfection, but it is. Whenever we hit a bad shot, fail a test or make a bad play we put ourselves down. There is not a single Duke student I know that does not chase perfection. That is what we are made to do. To be the best we can possibly be, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves that not being perfect is what makes us who we are. And it might actually be what brought us to Duke in the first place.