Perffectionism

 

Have you ever found yourself sitting staring at a blank page, unable to get started?

Do you put off starting your assessment (or piece of work for your PhD supervisor) until the last minute because you feel overwhelmed with anxiety about doing it right?

Did you notice the spelling mistake in the title?

If you answered yes to these questions, you might recognise that you struggle with procrastination, but you may not realise that perfectionism might be one of the underlying reasons for the procrastination.

Perfectionism is one of the most common causes of anxiety and procrastination in university students; however, it is concept that is often misunderstood. Often people believe that being perfectionistic means to be a ‘high achiever’, or think that avoidance or procrastination are due to ‘being lazy’ – this is often not true.

 

So what is perfectionism?

Perfectionism has three main components –

  • The relentless striving for extremely high standards
  • Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards
  • Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the cost.

Perfectionism tends to be driven by a fear of making mistakes, and beliefs that mistakes might make you less successful, likeable or even less worthy, or sometimes that mistakes will lead to some unspecified catastrophic outcome.

Some people may strive to be perfect in only one part of their life, such as studies, at work, or appearance. Others may strive to be perfect in many or all areas of their life. This article will just focus on perfectionism in an academic setting.

 

What does perfectionism look like?

Perfectionism can generally go one of two ways – overcompensation or avoidance. It is not uncommon for people to flip between both.

Overcompensation might involve the following:

  • repeatedly writing and re-writing sentences
  • repeatedly looking over work searching for errors
  • asking others to check your work repeatedly
  • endlessly creating lists and timetables
  • not letting others do any of the work because you are afraid that tasks won’t be done properly
  • focusing on small details at the expense of the bigger picture
  • collecting too much information at the expense of starting writing

Alternatively, this pressure to reach such high standards can be paralysing, and so striving for this often leads to procrastination, avoidance or even giving up. This often looks like:

  • difficulty getting started on assessments
  • not attempting an exam or assessment because you are sure your won’t do well enough
  • handing in your work late
  • not starting an assessment until the last minute so that if you don’t do well it is not a reflection of your ability,
  • distracting yourself with YouTube or Facebook (or anything else) as a way of coping
  • being unable to make a decision
  • not handing in an assessment at the due date because it is not ‘perfect’, even though you have a completed piece of work.

People who can be perfectionistic can easily end up stuck in a vicious cycle where their self-worth is tied up with achievement, leading them to set unrealistic goals. When they fail to reach these goals, they might feel depressed and lethargic and a deep sense of failure, which reinforces their need to meet their high standards to feel ok.

Sometimes, when they do actually achieve the standards they set for themselves, they dismiss that goal as not being important or difficult enough, or simply being a fluke, and so get no satisfaction from the achievement. They might then set their standards even higher.

 

Is perfectionism good or bad?

People often have good reasons for being perfectionistic, such as the feeling of satisfaction of being top of the class, or always feeling prepared or in control, or receiving praise from family or friends when you do well (or avoiding criticism). However the paradox of perfectionism is that sometimes these standards can actually impair performance (such as when it leads to avoidance or procrastination), or meeting the standards may come at a huge cost to your emotional wellbeing, relationship, physical health, or other aspects of your life. Perfectionism can lead to burnout, as well as increasing risk for mood, anxiety and eating disorders.

“But [I hear you say]… if I let go of my high standards, won’t I end up not caring at all or doing nothing? How will I have any direction in life?”

It is important to remember that there is a vast difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. In a nutshell, healthy striving is more about being motivated by your passion for learning (rather than a fear of failure), putting in your best effort within a reasonable time frame that still allows you to live a balanced life, learning to be ok with failure if it does occur, and knowing that you are still a worthwhile person regardless of your achievements.

 

 

What can you do about perfectionism?

If you decide that you want to change, then here are a few ideas to try:

  • Recognise the signs– the first step is to get to know what perfectionism looks like for you. Consider what behaviours, thoughts and feelings you experience that signal perfectionism might be around, so you can identify perfectionism when it is occurring.

 

  • Decide whether you want to let go of perfectionism – This might sound straight forward, but it can be difficult to let go of the high standards because doing so might involve being willing to experience the anxiety that might come with trying a different approach. It might be useful to note down the costs and benefits of a perfectionism habit. For example, “I really like doing things well, but I have no free time.” What is it about perfectionism that causes the most problems for you?

 

  • Ask yourself: “Does telling myself that it has to be perfect help me to be effective and get things done on time?” “Does focusing on one failure and ignoring all my achievements increase my chances of being successful in the future?… Or does it have the opposite effect?

 

  • Start with a “Shitty First Draft” – If you are stuck staring at a blank page, try to shift your expectations – aim for just writing a “shitty first draft”. Just let the words come out however they choose and don’t focus on making it perfect at the outset. You could even adopt a sense of humour about it and award a ‘worst sentence of the day’. At the end of the day you may not have a masterpiece, but perhaps you will have something that is ‘good enough’.

 

  • Experiment with your standards – Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100%, try aiming for 90%, 80%, or 70% success. Consider, what perfectionistic behaviour would you like to do less of? What other things would you like to do more of in your life? e.g., time with friends, different interests etc.

 

  • Notice some unhelpful thinking styles that tend to fuel perfectionism. For example,
    • All-or-nothing thinking: “If I don’t get a distinction, then I don’t deserve to graduate
    • Shoulds: e.g., “I should study for three hours every night no matter what happens.
    • Mental filter – noticing and focusing on only the mistakes or flaws but dismissing all of the parts of your work that are correct
    • Catastrophising: e.g., “If I don’t get a distinction in this assignment, then I will never get a good job and my life will be over.”

 

  • Finished is more important than perfectthis short clip highlights why finishing a project is way more important than having something that is perfect, but not finished.

 

  • Reasonable standards – Try to identify a more reasonable or flexible expectations for yourself, such as “I prefer to do a good job, but if it is not perfect it is still adequate for what is required here.” While this idea is simple, it can be hard to actually follow through with, and you might need to repeatedly remember to come back to the reasonable standard and be patient with yourself.

 

  • You are more than your grades – Try to challenge the idea that failing at uni means that you are a failure as a person. For example, consider “If I fail at uni, it is not a reflection of my whole self. My whole self includes….”. As with the previous point, a simple concept, but not easy to do.

 

Perfectionism can be a complex beast to tackle, so if you have had a go at some of these strategies but are still struggling, please don’t go it alone. Talk to friends, family, or supervisors, and don’t hesitate to contact us here at UON Counselling.

 

For further information on Perfectionism –

Center for Clinical Interventions has some very informative and free brief tips sheets, or a series of self-help modules that look at perfectionism in more detail

When Perfect isn’t Good Enough – Book by Antony Martin

When Perfect isn’t Good Enough – TED talk by Antony Martin


Managing end-of-semester Stress

So it is week 10 (nearly week 11), getting towards the pointy end of semester, and many of you may be feeling the squeeze with lots of assessments due and exams on the horizon. Chances are that you might be experiencing some feelings of anxiety and stress – this is a completely normal human response!

Alternatively, some of you might take the more “bury my head in the sand” approach and try to avoid thinking about everything/anything. There is no shame in this, it is just a way of coping that most of us will have used at some point in time. However, most of us will acknowledge that this approach has its downsides (no pun intended) – tasks pile up and feel even more overwhelming or we might miss deadlines. And the truth is, that this approach is usually also a sign that you are feeling a bit overwhelmed or anxious.

So, say you are able to recognise that there is some anxiety going on for you at the moment – then what? What can you do with this anxiety?

Well as with most things, there are a few different options, and different things work for different people.

Some options for managing intense anxiety might include relaxation strategies like grounding yourself in the present moment using your senses, slowing your breathing rate, progressive muscle relaxation or using some guided mindfulness exercises. A couple of good apps for mindfulness and breathing include Breathe2Relax, headspace, and Smiling mind.

On the other hand, you might like to try to change your relationship with the anxiety. Rather than fighting or struggling to get rid of or avoid the anxiety, you could try making space for the feelings and being willing to experience them in order to work towards something that is important to you. Being willing to experience uncomfortable emotions can mean your actions are guided by your values, rather than avoiding discomfort.

For some people, much of their stress might come from getting caught up with thoughts about the work needing to be done perfectly or to a really high standard. This can be impossible (or come at the cost of your mental or physical health) when you have a number of things due at the same time, and for some people it can lead to being paralysed and not handing in anything at all. If this sounds like you, then you might like to have a look at some of these resources on perfectionism, and consider what would be more reasonable or helpful expectations for your work, taking into consideration all the demands on you at the moment. Remember – you are a human not a machine!

The key thing with managing your stress, is to give something (or a few different things) a try, and see what works for you. And remember – you are nearly there!

Stay tuned to the blog for more on perfectionism and other ways to manage anxiety in the coming weeks.


The material or views expressed on this Blog are those of the author and do not represent those of the University.  Please report any offensive or improper use of this Blog to RPS@newcastle.edu.au.
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