Perfectionism and Its Discontents

student tired stressed depressed

This, if any, is perhaps the most fitting post to be publishing late, since the reason for my delay is none other than the antagonist of today’s entry: perfectionism. Perfectionism is a trait seen by some as a blessing and by others as a curse. Unfortunately, in the academic community, it’s seen as an almost unambiguous virtue. This mentality is not just unhealthy, it is downright dangerous. In this post, I will make the case for what might seem like a pedantic distinction; but it is—as so many are—a distinction with purpose. In a word, I want to distinguish the virtue from the vice in the hope of excising perfectionism from our culture without compromising other truly virtuous academic values.

Before continuing, it is worth noting that there is so very much that can be written on the topic of perfectionism. We might quarrel with the academic atmosphere that values a certain kind of “greatness”. We might challenge the value of striving after perfection altogether. In this post, I want to challenge the culture of perfectionism on a more ‘grassroots’ level. I will take it for granted that excellence is to be valued and sought after. Some may find this contentious, and as always, I invite those who do to share their thoughts in the comments below.

Perfectionism Condoned

For the individual, perfectionism manifests in the answer to the following question: “How much is enough?” In my case, I find myself convinced that there is no answer to this question. Nothing is enough. The result is that I often work myself to exhaustion, as the only limits I (grudgingly) recognise are those my body forces upon me.

The trouble is, as one student of mine put it to me, there is a certain culture in academia that fetishises this kind of approach to one’s work. “I’ve been in the library all night,” some will announce. “I’ve barely slept all week,” another will declare. And while they may sound like complaints, one can’t help but get the feeling that they are also badges of honour. There’s often a certain bravado that accompanies such remarks. A sense that this is the way of things at university—or, more precisely, the way of things if you want to be successful. Getting enough sleep? You’re doing it wrong. Have time for hobbies? You’re doing it wrong. Generally speaking, if you’re not exceptionally stressed about your work and your grades at all times, then—you guessed it—you’re doing it wrong.

What’s worse is that this is not only perpetuated by the students who participate, but also by the teachers who neglect to encourage their students. “Good! They should be scared,” you’ll hear some say. As though frayed nerves, and frantic caffeine-fueled nights are a kind of academic rite of passage.

Room for Excellence?

But surely, traditionalists will complain, striving for excellence is precisely what academia is all about! And on a certain understanding of “excellence”, I quite agree. But the pursuit of excellence and perfectionism are two very different things. And it is this all-important distinction that the academic culture often blithely ignores.

So, how do we distinguish between these two? Well, as it happens, psychology already has the tools we seek for doing just this. Since the publication of a seminal paper on the topic in 1978, many psychologists have distinguished between the more positive perfectionist strivings, and the far more negative perfectionist concerns (so called by Stoeber and Otto (2006)). For clarity’s sake, I will refer to the former of these as the ‘pursuit of excellence’, and to the latter of these as ‘perfectionism’ simpliciter. Where the pursuit of excellence is associated with “high personal standards” (Stoeber and Otto 2006: 296), perfectionism is associated with “concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, socially prescribed perfectionism, and perceived discrepancy between actual achievements and high expectations” (ibid.)

Excellence without Perfectionism

To be clear, I don’t for a second want to discourage academics from having high personal standards; I take such standards to be admirable. Indeed, I pride myself in my own. What is essential, however, is that these standards be achievable, that our successes be recognised, and that our mistakes be accepted.

In the academic community, we are each of us teacher to some and student to others. We learn our expectations from our teachers before passing them on to our students. And so, I feel a cultural shift such as the one I propose is best affected by way of a shift in our approach to instruction. If perfectionism lies, at least in part, in the belief that nothing—no amount of effort, no level of success—is enough, then, as teachers, we have a responsibility to show our students otherwise.

Here are five ways we can begin to do this:

1. Celebrate successes, big and small.

Make sure your students walk away knowing more than just what they’ve done wrong. Acknowledging successes is our way of leading by example. It demonstrates to the student that we, their instructors, take “enough” to be achievable. And be specific! Nothing is more frustrating to a student than hearing that they’ve done well, but not knowing what they’ve done well. Nebulous comments encourage students to set unspecific, and therefore, unachievable goals.

2. Offer clear, precise, and constructive criticism.

As much as students want to know what they’ve done well, they equally want to learn what to do better. And, as with the previous, specificity is essential. It’s not enough to say, for instance, that the argumentation was weak. Which argument? What made it weak? How might they fix it? The student should be left wondering about these questions. If it’s not at all clear what is wrong and why, it becomes impossible to determine whether one has improved at all the next time around. By making our suggestions clear and precise, we provide achievable goals, and in so doing, help students determine how much is enough with respect to a given piece of work.

3. Empower students to make mistakes.

Show students that mistakes need not be feared. Far from unforgivable sins, mistakes are inevitable, and indeed, expected. What’s more, they are often highly instructive. Fear of mistakes is nothing short of paralyzing—so it is our responsibility as teachers to expose mistakes as the stepping-stones they are, rather than specters they are often seen to be.

4. Encourage questions.

We need to create a safe environment in which students can feel comfortable speaking up when they don’t understand. Ask if what you’ve said makes sense to them, and remind them that it’s okay if it doesn’t! I’ve lost count of the number of students who have felt the need to apologise when they found something unclear. This is precisely not how we want our students to feel. If we make it clear that we don’t expect perfection, students will be less likely to expect it of themselves.

5. Remember when you were in your student’s position.

It’s too easy to forget what it’s like to learn our respective subjects for the first time. What now seems obvious is likely far from obvious to your student. As much as I can, I try to avoid editorialising as I teach; that is, I avoid describing the content of what I’m teaching as “clear” or “easy”. Using words such as these encourages students to feel shame when they don’t understand; in avoiding such language, we go a long way toward achieving #3 and #4 from above.

Thoughts?

Do you have experience coping with perfectionism? Have you overcome your perfectionistic tendencies? Teachers, do you have strategies for discouraging perfectionism? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


References and Further Reading

Carey, B., 2007. Unhappy? Self-critical? Maybe you’re just a perfectionist. New York Times. 4 December 2007. Available from: <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/04/health/04mind.html> [12 May 2013]

Platt, J., 2012. The perils of perfectionism. GradHacker. 27 February 2012. Available from: <http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/02/27/the-perils-of-perfectionism/> [12 May 2013]

Rettner, R., 2010. Being a perfectionist can take a toll on health. NBC News. 7 December 2010. Available from: <http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38170039/ns/health-mental_health/t/being-perfectionist-can-take-toll-health/> [12 May 2013]

Rockquemore, K. A., 2012. The cost of perfectionism. Inside Higher Ed. 7 November 2012. Available from: <http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/11/07/start-series-essays-about-dealing-academic-perfectionism> [12 May 2013]

—–. 2012. Breaking the cycle. Inside Higher Ed. 14 November 2012. Available from: <http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/11/14/essay-breaking-cycle-academic-perfectionism> [12 May 2013]

Stoeber, J. and Otto, K., 2007. Positive conceptions of perfectionism: approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 295-319. Available from: <http://psr.sagepub.com/content/10/4/295> [12 May 2013]

Templeton, E., 2010. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Chronicle of Higher Education. 10 June 2010. Available from: <http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good-2/24642> [12 May 2013]

Wherefore a blog: Tackling mental health in academia

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.

I’ve lived with mental illness for the better part of a decade now. And as for academia? I, without exaggeration, eat, sleep and breathe it. (Well, maybe not eat it… though, I did once chew some notes out of frustration! But I digress…) So why now, all of a sudden, have I been moved to launch a blog concerning the collision of these worlds? As with many of our grander ideas, it began with a faint inkling: a firefly against the grey backdrop of the day’s doldrums………

…….Time to mark papers. Dammit! Still haven’t prepared for that class tomorrow. Maybe I should start a mental health blog… Heavens to Murgatroyd! Does Billy know what a comma is?!……….

Or, something like that, anyway… At any rate, vague ideas gathered as dust on a tumbleweed, but even still, nary a blog was…blogged.

Now, because I am a philosopher and so do nothing simply, my inciting incidences were two in number:

(1) teaching undergraduates for the first time

(2) a particularly nasty week of my own.

I’ll take each of these in turn.


1. Teaching Undergraduates

As a graduate student, I’ve experienced my fair share of clashes between my mental illness and my academic career. I’ve also witnessed friends and close peers experience similar such misadventures. Then, upon commencing my doctoral studies, I took on some all-important undergraduate teaching responsibilities. As an instructor—or “tutor”—at Cambridge, I see students in numbers of 1-10. To any teacher, this is nothing short of a blessing. And, while they may not always think so, it is also a blessing for those 1-10 students: no one can hide.

I was—naively—prepared to open eyes and minds to the scintillating annuls of philosophy. Instead, it was my eyes that were opened. Or, more appropriately, re-opened. Standing at the front of the classroom, fresh chalk at the ready, what I saw saddened me: my students were terrified. Terrified of failure.

Now, it is the exception to the rule when a student is forthcoming about the challenges they’re experiencing. Nevertheless, one of my students eventually, and shame-facedly, admitted to having difficulty keeping up.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I told them. “Your work is excellent!”

That was the wrong answer. Or, at least, only half of the right one.

“I understand,” I should have said. “I know how you feel,” I eventually did say.

What I see from the front of the classroom saddens me because I watch as too many of my students—my students—suffer silently, convinced that they are somehow to blame for their situation. Convinced that they are weak for facing a challenge beyond their control. Convinced that there is shame in revealing their troubles.

This blog is my attempt to reach out to more of those students—or, at least, more than I could from the front of a classroom alone.

“Have you heard of University Counselling Services?” I ask one of them.

“No.” I see it in their face: the hackles are already up. I don’t need help!

“They’re terrific,” I continue anyway. “They’ve helped me out a lot.”


2. My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 

I said before there were two events that motivated the inauguration of this blog. This second of these is decidedly more personal. The week of April 1st was a week most trying. And if you were to have asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Our minds can be spectacularly opaque to us at times… But, one way or another, the week of April 1st was a no good, very bad week. And because I made the very biggest of mistakes, April 5th was a terrible day indeed.

My mistake?

I didn’t make a phone call.

You might be asking yourself what could possibly be so bad about that? Well, pace Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that when we’re at our worst, we feel the most alone. And it is also a truth—though, regrettably, one less well acknowledged—that our worst decisions can often be avoided if only we would dare to see that we aren’t alone at all.

Thankfully, my decision was rather benign in its consequences. Still, it was one best avoided. And avoid it I did not.

But that’s not the worst of it.

The worst of it is I chose not to make that phone call. I was too ashamed to tell someone.

So, at last, we arrive at the second motivation for this project: this blog represents my promise never again to succumb to shame where shame is not due.

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.