Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Perfectionism: or the dangers of being pretty good at most things pretty quickly

Hello, my name is Katy Peplin, and I'm a perfectionist. I've been in "recovery" for about a decade, but this is one of the biggest battles I've faced yet. It's a mental pattern that I (still) easily fall into, and that, when I really dig into it, touches the very core of what I believe about myself.

Here are some of the ways that perfectionism pops up for me:

  • Extremely high standards for my own work

  • Tendency to "redo" the work of others to make it fit my standard (assuming that it's the best, of course)

  • Mismatch between the level of frustration I feel about a task and the actual level of challenge/difficulty I'm facing (for example, feeling mega frustrated when a small thing doesn't work the way I think it should)

  • Mistrust in my own evaluation of my work - constantly seeking outside opinions and validation, consciously or otherwise

  • Fear about letting others see my work before it's ready

  • Missing deadlines because the work isn't ready to be seen

  • Constantly shifting definition of what "done" is

  • Hitting one goal and immediately setting another, even higher goal without pausing to feel good about meeting the first one

  • Abandoning activities if I'm not instantly competent/proficient

  • Taking activities that were expressly intended to be hobbies and turning them competitive/measurable (focusing on stats for exercise, extremely critical about things I make for fun, from dinner to doodling)

  • Inability to take compliments gracefully because it feels uncomfortable to get praise for something I'm not satisfied with

  • Needing to obsessively plan out and make milestones/goals/targets for big projects and being immediately and deeply discouraged if I'm forced to be flexible with those internal deadlines

  • (and probably a lot more!)

When I list them out like that, it's easy for me to see that perfectionism is more than just "wanting to do well" - it's a coping mechanism that is designed to protect me against the uncertainty and possible pain of not doing well. Brené Brown describes perfectionism like this:

In the research there’s a significant difference between perfectionism and healthy striving or striving for excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.

Perfectionism is also very different than self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self- focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.

Last, perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.

So much of this resonates with me, and with what I see every day with my clients. This is not a well-balanced desire to do well - this is an unconscious (or sometimes conscious) belief that we ARE the work, and therefore the work must be evaluated well by others because that means WE are good in the eyes of others.

As an experiment: imagine that you were working on a big project - a dissertation chapter, a journal article, a book, a website. You work on it for months under the impression that you will eventually share it for feedback with an advisor, editor, supervisor, or boss. Then at the very last minute, that person says "no need for me to look at it,” and asks you to move onto the next task. How would that make you feel?

Would you still celebrate a job well done? Would you be able to look at your work and know how to feel about it without the feedback? Would you feel completion, accomplishment, pride?

This isn’t, of course, to suggest that all feedback is evil and that we should just do what we want without ever asking for anyone to evaluate it. That’s not how this works. But, I find that that exercise helps people see that in the absence of validation from others, many of us don’t have robust mechanisms, or any mechanism at all, to consider, appreciate, and evaluate our own efforts.

If you’re in grad school, or if you’re an academic, or if you have a PhD, it’s more than probable that some things came easily to you. Maybe you were pulled out in elementary school and given books from the next reading level, and it felt good to be special. Maybe you were valedictorian. Maybe good grades got you ice cream at the end of the year. Maybe you could write papers the night before (or morning of) as an undergraduate and they still got glowing comments from your TA. That’s not all we are, obviously, but if we come to associate parts of our identity with academic or intellectual achievement, grad school is a natural next step.

It is also a perfectly designed system to turn that perfectionism and expose all it’s toxicity. For me, something broke down when I made the jump between 15 page papers and 50 page chapters. I simply couldn’t organize my thoughts clearly enough - my writing wandered and I couldn’t fix it. My perfectionism SCREAMED at me all through my dissertation process - don’t let people see this! They’ll think less of you! They’ll take your acceptance away! You’ll never get a job! Everyone else figured out how to do this! Why haven’t you??

But under that noise was the reality: I wasn’t immediately good at writing dissertation chapters, and I hadn’t had much experience with having to work to get better at something in the “school realm.” I wasn’t used to "SEE ME” comments. I was completely unhinged when faced with the idea that I wasn’t good at school, because such a huge part of how I saw myself was “a person who is good at school.”

So I did what I’ve always done: worked as hard as I could to be good so that I wouldn’t have to feel “not good” at something. I went to the writing center, I got involved in writing groups, I worked with editors, I had friends read my work, I turned into the most ruthless self-editor. And unsurprisingly, this did not go well. I became so anxious at the very idea of writing that I would sit down at my desk to do it and feel nauseous.

Looking back, I know that it didn’t feel good to work at writing, even when I was getting better, because I wasn’t interested in the process of being a better writer. I was working that hard to avoid bad feedback, and so my sense of myself hinged on what others thought of me. It would have felt more empowering, I’m sure, to be working hard to be a better communicator, to improve my writing so more people could access my ideas, but instead, I was working hard so other people would think I was good. And even when the feedback came, because I had no inner foundation to see my own value, I was utterly dependent on what other people thought of my work. Negative feedback was crushing. Positive feedback was regarded with suspicion. I never felt good about it.

The first step in the perfectionism recovery journey is being aware of it. I read two books that changed how I think about perfectionism: When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough". I got into therapy to deal with my anxiety, only to find out that my perfectionism was kerosene thrown on the fire of my brain chemistry. And then I did the most radical thing of all:

I tried to be bad at things on purpose. I told my students in class when I didn’t know (and promised to look it up and report back.) I opened up and told people when I was struggling with something. I tried to get better about accepting help. I did things just for fun, like knitting, and brush lettering, and gardening. I put things up on my walls that I made, so that I would look at both their mistakes, and my hard work, at the same time. I focused explicitly on my processes for work, rather than the results. I focused less on the time it took me to do things, or any other metrics I was using to measure my work, and focused more on how I felt WHILE working. I made messes. I learned that screwing up wasn’t the end of the world.

And now, a few miles down the road, I can work with clients around their perfectionism. In Thrive PhD, we talk a lot about feeling good about what you’re doing, while you’re doing it. Turning in your dissertation proposal is a MASSIVE deal, even before you get the feedback on it! Showing up to work regularly is a HUGE accomplishment, even if the work wasn’t perfect or you were in your pajamas. We track our days so that we can see that “good days” and “bad days” productivity wise tend to balance out if we show up regularly. We remind each other that trying again is the key to everything. We try to improve for our own sense of pride, because it feels good to try your hardest and do your best, not because we want our advisors to swoop in and shower us with praise. We practice the skill of viewing feedback as suggestions for improving for THE WORK, not suggestions for improving OURSELVES. We cheer when people do things for fun.

It isn’t easy. But it feels better than carrying around that armor all the time. Sometimes you don’t know how heavy you feel until the weight is gone.