Essay on confronting academic perfectionism in yourself
It’s been quite a journey over the past five weeks of our collective work to overcome academic perfectionism. We calculated the costs of perfectionism, we learned what the cycle of perfectionism looks like and how to disrupt it, and we explored concrete strategies for overcoming perfectionism in teaching, service and writing. I love that so many of you experimented with new strategies in your writing, teaching, and service and found immediate relief in doing so.
By now you know that I believe the quickest and easiest way to launch your journey to overcome perfectionism is to experiment with new strategies and assess the outcomes. I’m not surprised to hear that many of you also discovered the inevitable: When you take the first steps in changing your behavior, all of your "stuff" comes flying up to the surface. It may feel uncomfortable in the moment, but once your stuff is up at the surface (instead of invisibly and quietly driving you under the surface), you can take a good hard look at it, see if it’s true or false, decide if it’s serving you or tormenting you, and then choose whether you want to continue holding onto limiting beliefs, other people’s definitions of success, flawed assumptions, and/or unrealistically high expectations.
If you want to keep your stuff, that’s great. It’s your choice. If not, it’s time to start creating new beliefs, assumptions, expectations and definitions of success. In short, it’s time to create a new vision for yourself that has the power to shape your decisions, your day-to-day activities, and how you feel about your work.
I don't want to make it sound like the process of overcoming perfectionism is easy. It’s not. The environment and system in which you are embedded trigger and exacerbate perfectionist tendencies. And the ugly truth is that academic perfectionism stems from a deep and profound insecurity that you aren’t good enough or smart enough, or don't deserve to be in your position. And those feelings are going to require more than tips and tricks to evolve into something that is useful. In other words, if you truly want to overcome academic perfectionism, you will need to start working on the core of the problem (your insecurity about measuring up) so let me suggest three steps to help you permanently eradicate your perfectionism.
Clarify Your Vision
Perfectionists hold the flawed notion that everything they do must be done at the very highest standard (perfection). And because the root of perfectionism is insecurity, the force driving the unreachable goals is the desperate attempt to prove (to yourself and others) that you deserve to be a professor, to win tenure, to get promoted to full professor, etc. I’m not sure how to say this nicely, so let me give it to you directly: proving yourself is toxic fuel. You will never get what you want, you’ll never feel fulfilled, and you will never be satisfied by your quest to prove your worth. I know this because I work with many people who have all the titles, accolades, awards, grants, and honors you can imagine and they still feel that if they achieve one more thing, their colleagues will recognize their intellectual worth and then they can feel accepted and worthy.
In case it’s not obvious, if your self-worth is dependent on the appraisal of others, you will constantly feel like you have to do __________ to prove yourself. Instead, I want to suggest that you clarify what the fuel is that is driving you and that you develop an internally generated vision of what it means to be successful. In other words, if you’re driven by proving yourself and your success is determined by external accomplishments, that’s a red flag. By contrast, I’m asking you to consider what would happen if you answer the following questions:
- What do I want?
- What is my passion and purpose?
- What does it mean to be successful and what does success look like for me?
Early in our careers, most of us allow others to define what we should want and the terms of success for us so that we only get to feel a sense of accomplishment when we finish the Ph.D., get the right job, win tenure, or get promoted to full professor. This is reinforced by the fact that our colleagues tend to use these markers of success as a collective shortcut to determine our worth (e.g., "what’s on your nametag at a conference determines whether I’ll bother to talk to you or not").
Creating your own vision of what you want, what you’re meant to leave as a legacy in this world, and what success looks like for you is a powerful act because it fundamentally reshapes your relationship to work. The key to getting clear about it that most people miss is that you want to specify things that are within your control (e.g., produce high-quality scholarship and a tenurable research portfolio) rather than things that are controlled by other people (e.g., become a tenured professor at ________ University). This may sound like a nuanced distinction, but it’s critically important because one of the biggest mistakes I see faculty members make is that they constantly compare themselves to others instead of using their vision as the reference point for success.
In my case, my vision is to provide high-quality training, tools, and a supportive community for academics who want to maximize their potential. Notice that I’m not saying that I want to generate a specific amount of revenue, or serve a specific number of people, because I don’t control who steps into the opportunities we provide or what they do when they take advantage of them. I do, however, control the quality of training I provide, how I utilize technology to create a safe space across institutions, and how responsive our tools are to the needs of our members. A vision that is within your control allows YOU to set the bar (instead of it being set for you), it allows YOU to meet the standards you set for yourself (instead of letting other people’s subjective evaluation become your sense of self worth), and it enables YOU to feel a deep sense of accomplishment because your vision is the articulation of success so moving towards it means you’re doing the work you truly desire and is meaningful for you.
Use Your Vision as a Filter
Perfectionists often believe that everything has to be done at the highest standard. But let’s be honest: In academic life there are many things where "done is good enough." I’ll even go a step further and suggest that the majority of perfectionist clients I work with are doing a whole bunch of work that doesn’t need to be done at all. The challenge is to develop a filter that can reliably and consistently help you to vary your standards in a conscious and intentional way by determining which activities need to be done at a high standard, which activities need to just get done, and which activities you can let go of entirely without any consequences.
When you’re clear about your vision, you can use it as a filter to vary your standards. This requires you to develop the mental habit of running your activities through your vision filter. For example, I get a huge number of requests to sit on dissertation committees, review journal submissions, and sit on various editorial and advisory boards. I run each request through my filter and ask: Will this bring me closer to my vision? The vast majority of the time, the answer is a quick and easy "no" –- and that’s the beauty of a filter. It’s also the case that a vision filter is a great tool for shaping my daily activities. Some work (like writing and course development) bring me closer to my vision so I consciously choose to spend time on them. Other types of activities take me away from my vision (like bookkeeping) and while they are necessary for my organization to keep functioning, somebody else can do them so I delegate them to other people.
Use Your Vision as the Measuring Stick
We all know intellectually that comparing ourselves to others tends to produce negative feelings. For perfectionists this is especially the case because we often choose reference groups for comparison that aren’t appropriate and guarantee feelings of failure (the most successful person in your field, a peer who doesn’t have the childcare responsibilities you do, or someone at a different type of institution, which has significantly greater resources to support their work). No matter how dangerous we know comparison is, it’s very hard to avoid because we all want to locate ourselves on the continuum of progress and the easiest way to do so is to compare ourselves to others.
Having a clear vision enables you to stop comparing yourself to others to see if you measure up. Instead you use your vision as your measuring stick. That shifts the inner conversation from "how do I stack up next to _________ [fill in inappropriate comparison person]?" to "how far have I moved toward living my vision?" It's a seismic internal shift to move from a self-evaluation that is contingent upon comparing yourself to others, to an assessment of how close or far you are from the vision of your work that YOU desire.
Ultimately, overcoming perfectionism requires you to clarify your vision, use it as a filter for varying your standards, and shift your approach around self-worth from negative comparison to others to a personal assessment of your proximity to your vision. While incredibly difficult work, it’s the one thing that will move you from misery of perfectionism to a truly empowered stance in the academy.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore