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 perfect – this 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