The Trouble With Perfectionism
Being a perfectionist at university can in many ways be both a blessing and a curse – but this academic year, as the pressure has upped, I’ve personally found it to be a hindrance more often than not! My recent experiences of this have made me realise just how many students are afflicted by perfectionism and I thought it might be useful to share some of my thoughts on tackling this…
Everyone’s different & this mentality comes out in various ways, so here’s just a few I’m particularly aware of:
– Putting work off because you’re worried you won’t be able to do it; the little part of yourself repeating endlessly that ‘You can’t do it, so why bother trying.’
– Taking absolutely forever to write an essay because you keep writing and rewriting, almost redrafting bit by bit as you go along.
– Starting a piece of work early but still ending up being last minute when finishing it because you take so long at each point; doing way more research than necessary, planning and re-planning: rather than just getting on with it and worrying about redrafting later on in the process.
– Putting pressure on yourself to get the highest mark & focusing overwhelmingly on any negatives in written feedback on your work rather than picking out the positives (this can include comparing yourself to others – a really unhealthy but often inevitable behaviour!) I tend to zoom in straight away on any more critical comments and sometimes lose sight of all the good things; something I’m trying very hard not to do!
– This is often part of an all or nothing mindset; thinking in extremes such as achieving a certain mark or ‘failing.’ Perfectionists often catastrophize like this.
– Never being able to leave a piece of work alone; seeing the holes & never being completely happy with what you submit, no matter how much care and effort has gone into it.
– A work-life balance that’s slipping hopelessly toward ‘work’ and straying away from ‘fun.’
Recognising all of these things is a great first step towards dealing with them. And it’s really important to note that perfectionism is by no means all bad – when harnessed it’s great to have high standards and be attentive to the detail in your work. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist I feel organised and proactive about setting high standards for myself and doing everything in my ability to try and achieve them. However, as I personally have found, if you don’t bring perfectionism under control it can quickly begin to control you and that’s hardly ideal in any respect. Equally, we can’t change who we are & by that token I think it’s important to learn to embrace and manage perfectionist tendencies rather than try and completely eradicate them!
I’ve always been inclined towards perfectionism, and never felt that it got in the way of my studies – in fact, quite the opposite, I was always reassured that I’d taken a forensic and thorough approach to work in all aspects of my life – be that GCSEs, A-Levels or my extra-curricular acting and singing. However, coming to uni, I started to become quite fixated on the need to ‘do well’ and prove myself; this did pay off and I was lucky enough to gain a 1st class grade for my first year. However, starting my 2nd year, I began to get really anxious about the fact that from now on, my assessments ‘counted’ towards my final degree grade and I got really obsessed with making sure all my work was ‘perfect.’
Of course – this just isn’t a realistic or achievable goal, and it totally misses the point that university is, yes, about the hard work, but also about making mistakes, learning from them and growing as a result. Because of the attitude I took, I let my work-life balance get ridiculously off-kilter and was also really stressed (needlessly) a lot of the time. So I decided to seek out some help in conquering my perfectionism, and ended up being redirected to a specialist workshop run by the University Counselling Service, exploring perfectionism and coping strategies for it.
I cannot recommend this enough; it helped me no end in starting to address the maladaptive nature of many perfectionist behaviours. I’ve undoubtedly got a way to go but already I can say I’ve enjoyed this term much more than last because I’ve been proactive in engaging with the strategies and ideas we were given as tools at the workshop! Here are just a couple of my top tips as a result of this:
1) The Dice Have Spoken!
One of my favourite strategies relates to work-life balance and creating time for yourself. Make a list numbered 1-6 of some leisure activities you would enjoy (in my case things like baking, watching a film, non-academic reading – whatever you like) and maybe things you wouldn’t normally have time for. Select a day and time in the coming week which you know you’ll be free – and then roll a die. Whichever number comes up; you must do that activity at the given time – the dice have spoken! The whole idea is to force yourself to stop and give your overactive brain a bit of a rest.
I’ve struggled at times this year to maintain a healthy amount of downtime so this exercise has helped hugely. By giving it a go at least once a week I’ve started to bring some balance back to my uni life and in term 2, easily the busiest of the year, my stress levels have felt much more manageable. Occasionally, I’ve felt a little burned out, got to the evening and attempted to plough through some study – without much success. However, instead of struggling on, by admitting that I felt drained and needed to stop, and doing something to relax, I then felt so much more refreshed when I came back to my work at a later point! It can take discipline sometimes to step away from a mountain of work that won’t do itself, but in the long run I think it pays dividends not just for your studies but most importantly for your wellbeing to try this approach.
2) Race Against The Clock!
Time management is your best friend in conquering perfectionism. I’ve always been really organised, which is certainly a start, but sometimes when faced with a daunting essay or project, I end up overthinking it and putting all kinds of mental barriers in the way of actually doing the work, which results in either procrastination, or going round in circles, writing and rewriting the same paragraph, or writing and deleting constantly, which usually ends in staring stressfully at a blank screen. So, when writing a recent essay (5000 words, no less!) I decided enough was enough, and that I needed to find a way to just write it without falling back into these awful habits. I wanted to be able to have a full draft that maybe wasn’t totally ready to submit and had lots of tangents and muddled points, but which I could then give some breathing space for a few days before revisiting and redrafting.
The only way to do this was to be strict with myself. I split my essay plan into sections; allowing myself a given amount of time for each (e.g. 20 minutes for the introduction, 30 minutes for the first section, and so on) and then set a timer for each part. I had to be really disciplined about adhering to the time set, and it sounds terribly stressful almost racing against the clock like this, but I actually found it incredibly helpful in forcing me to write and get all my thoughts and ideas, no matter how incoherent, down on the page. I ended up with the full essay written – and then redrafting was a much, much easier process as a result. I will most certainly be sticking to this method again when writing other essays. It is worth saying that this only works as a technique if you have done thorough research and planning for a piece of work, rather than just blindly setting off trying to write!
I hope some of these tips have been helpful or at the very least relatable. The university counselling service offers a series of specialised workshops targeting various problems commonly experienced by students. Here’s a link if you’d like to hear more…