It’s the second day of classes at The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. I’m in graduate school. I’m a candidate for the MFA in Actor Training & Coaching. In London. England. My husband and cat are waiting for me at home, the sun is out, my classmates are wonderful, my course leaders are wonderful. I’ve been wanting this for ages, dreaming of this moment.

So naturally, I’m having a panic attack.


I practically float to the train station on my first day of class. I’m smiling at the memory of Jordan beaming at me from across the room that morning, me in my water-resistant backpack, my yoga pants, and brand-new school sweatshirt. My lanyard with my ID card swings delightfully as I kiss him and wave goodbye and he tells me he’s so proud of me for the fourteenth time.

I cannot stop smiling, and thank god I have a mask on because otherwise the whole of London, grumpily getting on to the Tube on a Tuesday morning, would be steering clear of the insane woman with the ridiculous grin on her face. I could hug every one of them.

Our first class feels like someone pulled from my own mind exactly the type of space I’ve been longing for, the types of conversations I’ve been hoping to have, the challenges I’ve been waiting to meet. Part way through I remember that I don’t have to go home and work a support job after this, that this IS my job for the next year. I sit with the joy of that, and also the guilt that surfaces with the privilege of that. I sit with both, and I try to make space for both.

I also notice in that first class, that there’s this wary feeling growing at the base of my stomach. What the heck is that? I’m not sure, and I don’t have time to examine it because we’re moving on to the next thing.

I’m exhausted. It’s only been a three-hour class but I feel like I’ve just run a marathon. My thoughts are all over the place, and I can’t keep up. My course mates and I go across the street to a pizza place for lunch and immediately we’re talking about positionality, and inclusion, and all the recent changes at the school, and the wildness of 2020. No one is offering small-talk, we’ve literally just met each other and we’re already in the deep-end. It feels amazing. It feels like home.

I head out and meet Jordan at the bank because we’ve been struggling to set up a UK bank account. It’s glorious to see him. We share our days, and open up an account, and get more food, and collapse at home.

If anyone has been in a show, or prepared for some big event that you knew you’d have to do multiple times, you might be familiar with the feeling of “Second Show Blues” or “Second Show Slump.” It’s a physiological and mental reaction that happens after you’ve done opening night, or the big event. The preparation is stressful, and exhausting, so adrenaline kicks in and you’re entirely focused on just getting to the Big Day. Once that’s over, your body goes, “Oh thank goodness, we can breathe now, let’s collapse.”

But you’re not done yet. There’s a second show, or another presentation…or a second class.

I didn’t sleep well, the adrenaline was gone, and so the Second Show Slump found me arriving for class on Day 2 under-resourced.

Our first class of the day was called “How to be the Perfect Student.” Immediately, I’m activated, I’m worried. This is because I am a Recovering Perfectionist. I know all too well the stress and anxiety my Perfect Student voice is capable of wreaking on me. I’m comfortable operating in Perfect Student mode in the sense that it’s how I got through all of my previous schooling.

Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word, maybe ‘familiar’ is better.

Trying to unlock a classroom and a teacher, to determine how I would succeed in any particular class, was like a game, and I was really really good at it. The structure of Western capitalistic schooling was built for my type of brain. I learned at a very young age how to ace tests, how to impress teachers, how be seen in a classroom of 30 other students, and what a “perfect student” was supposed to look, sound, and act like.

The consequence of working that Perfectionist muscle (to perfection, ha), was that I was really good at being what everyone else wanted me to be, and I was completely destabilized the moment I wasn’t living up to my perceptions of everyone else’s expectations.

Does that make sense?

See, I’m doing it there.

I need you to think that I’m doing a very good job of explaining myself. Good grief.

Once I graduated from undergrad, I knew that I needed to be away from a classroom for awhile. I knew it because the stress of trying to be good was eating away at me. I wanted to find internal satisfaction and comfort with who I was, and what I was doing. I wanted to do theater work that genuinely pleased me and didn’t need to please anyone else. While I intellectually understood the saying, “Not every teacher for every student,” I wanted to feel like I was living that statement truthfully. Not all of my students are going to think that I’m the GOAT. Not all of my teachers are going to be the GOAT. There is still value to be had in both circumstances.

(GOAT = Greatest of All Time, just in case you’re like me and you’re often behind the times when it comes to internet acronyms.)

I’ve spent the last six years actively putting myself in positions where I would, without a doubt, fail spectacularly. I started my own theatre company at 23. I did not know how to start a theatre company and I did fail many, many times. I’m actually giggling as I’m writing this, because, woof, boy did I. And I LOVE that I did that. I’m really, really, proud of that.

And very, VERY slowly, I did find more self-compassion. I built resilience. I learned how to say, “I don’t know,” in a rehearsal room. I let my students scrunch their eyebrows in confusion at me and I gave them space to be frustrated with me. Or, I tried to. I failed a lot at that, and then I’d reflect on that and I’d try again.

Six years later, here I am, heading back into a classroom.

I don’t want to become Perfect Student again.

Or rather, I don’t want to be ruled by her again.

She can be destructive, cruel, unforgiving, and impatient.

But…she does also help me get shit done.

So you know…small doses.


So now picture me heading into a class called “How to be the Perfect Student.”

Oh god.

The reality is that we spend several hours pulling apart this idea of “perfection.” We begin to see that perfection is cultural, that in a culturally diverse body of students like ours, everyone has different ideas of what perfection looks like. Folks throw out statements like, “Maybe being the perfect student isn’t always being on time and turning in perfect assignments, but it’s about giving yourself permission to fail,” and so forth.

This sounds so nice.

I imagine that there were students in that class that day that felt a kind of relief hearing that. Students that felt the pressure ease off of them as we redefined and destabilized this idea of perfection.

Not me.

My exhausted, Second-Show-Slump brain went back to years of habituated rules of perfection, and whizzed around the space as each student spoke, clinging to each new idea of Perfection. It didn’t matter that I’d spent six years trying to make space for new, more compassionate ways of being – nope, I was right back to 17 year old Caitlin, determined to Perfectionist the crap out of undergraduate school.

Oh, so being the Perfect Student is about not being perfect, and failing? Great, I will fail so hard. I will be the best failure. Watch me totally kill it when it comes to NOT BEING PERFECT.

My heart is hammering in my chest. Waves of emotion are crashing over me, tears stinging my eyes. I look down at the ground so no one will see the tears but I keep nodding my head so I still look like I’m engaged (man, she’s so good, she’s so engaged she’s turning inward to listen!). I mean, I am engaged. But I am also freaking out, because I’d thought I’d handled these thought patterns, I thought I was older and wiser and that I wouldn’t have to wrestle with this, as much, in graduate school. But here we are.

Every student has been asked to share their experience of our Perfect Student exercise, so I know that eventually I will have to speak. This means that I can’t divorce myself from noting how our course leader responds to each student, which students seem to get “better” responses than others, and I can’t help it, I’m crafting what my response should be to try to fit this perfect-response puzzle.

First I think, I’ll share about this, that I’m having a panic attack, because that will be such a great vulnerable response, that’s sure to be rewarded.

And then I think no, that’s too much, and it’s off-topic. The course leader specifically wants to hear what we learned from the exercise, and how we learned it.

What have I learned? Nothing, I think with spitfire, except that my goddamn brain will be the end of me. I can’t fucking focus on this fucking exercise because I’ve got so many demons in my head I can’t see straight.

I’m even more panicked when I realize I can’t come up with something that I’ve learned. Now I’m spiraling. Excellent.

I land on a little moment where we were asked to find joy in the exercise. I laughed at something someone in my group said, and our course leader came over and pointed out that there was our first genuine laugh, now we were on it. I decide I’ll say something like, “I learned that I can fuck up an exercise, or it can go not the way I thought it would go, and I can still enjoy it.”

Yeah, that’s reasonable, I think. How did I learn this? Um…through…sitting here…having a panic attack…maybe?

I’m doomed.

No matter what I say at this point, it’s going to be some version of a Not-Genuine Self. It will be pre-planned and it won’t resonate truthfully because the truth is that I’m not present in this room and I can’t respond to the question as a Perfect Student.

The thing that I’ve learned from this exercise doesn’t have anything to do with the exercise, and that feels like an answer I can’t share because it’s not a Perfect Student response.

The thing that I’ve learned from this exercise is that I am still very much a Recovering Perfectionist. That my old habits have not died and left me reborn a wiser woman, that I can be activated simply by being in a room where we are talking about Perfectionism. What I’ve learned is that having this conversation does not help me release the need to be perfect, having this conversation makes it harder for me let go of being perfect. It’s very difficult for me to hear about what other students think Perfection is because I immediately begin comparing myself to them and begin adopting their modes of Perfection so that I can make them happy. What I learned is that this is a very useful experience to have right at the beginning of grad school because I know what I’m working with. Old habits die hard. I’ve learned that I’m going to be battling my Perfect Student for the next two years, AND, actually, I’ve learned that I have grown a bit. Because I didn’t have this awareness in undergrad. She (Perfect Student) just ruled me. At least I’ve got a better grip on the steering wheel, and (most of the time) I can let Perfect Student sit in the back of the bus but she doesn’t have to drive it.

How did I learn this? I learned this by having a panic attack on the second day of graduate school.

It’s my turn. I’m the second-to-last person to share. I split the difference, and I share that I’m emotional at the moment, that I’m activated by having this conversation, and that I’m a Recovering Perfectionist. I also share my pre-planned response, and leave it at that.

It’s unsatisfactory and I’m judging every word that leaves my lips. I don’t even really remember what the course leader’s response to me was, because I’m trying to figure out whether I did a good job or not.

Oh my GAWD. I’m incorrigible.

Classmates come up to me afterwards and they thank me for my vulnerability. They appreciate my honesty. I feel half-honest and I don’t know how to even begin to explain to them that particular truth so I smile and nod and breathe and say thank you. Now that it’s over, my body is calming down and I’m feeling more regulated. The next class is Voice and I am grateful to be able to stretch and breathe and have someone lead me through physical exercises where my mind can move to the back seat. I practice internal self-compassion as we work, I’m reminding myself, “Feel all the feelings, everything is welcome. Breathe.”

It gets better. Slowly.


As I write this, I’m laughing at myself. Boy oh boy. It’s going to be a wild ride, folks.

I can’t wait.

I hope maybe I made you smile a bit today too.

Good lord, I’m a delightful mess.

With love,