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Combating perfectionism

To accept ‘good enough’, be ready to get uncomfortable.

by Tara Siebarth

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Academia is a high-pressure environment filled with even higher expectations. Landing the perfect grant, faculty appointment or postdoc position can be as stressful as completing a thesis. However, while holding yourself to high expectations can help drive your career, it can also have a negative impact in the form of perfectionism.

“Any profession where people are scrutinized can lead to problems with perfectionism,” says Martin Antony, psychology professor at Ryerson University and author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism. “Perfectionism is when your standards are so high, you are bound to fail.”

While some may look at perfectionism as a good thing (“Shouldn’t I be putting 100 percent into everything I do?”), Dr. Antony argues that perfectionism sometimes can lead to lower productivity, anxiety and a difficult work-life balance.

If you feel your perfectionism may be getting in the way of your career and home life, there are some steps that can be taken to try to combat it.

Strategy 1: Admission

For some, this step is the hardest: admitting you suffer from perfectionism. Dr. Antony says he tells his clients to assess their situation like a scientist: look at the evidence. Do you constantly correct people when they mispronounce a word? Do you spend three hours proofreading an e-mail? Do your standards improve your performance or do they make it harder to get things done?

“One exercise I find to be very effective is to ask people: ‘Would you recommend the way you live to others?’ Many answer no,” he says. “So why are they living that way?”
Try keeping a journal of the tasks you complete in a day and track your emotions while completing these tasks. But don’t try to do this exercise perfectly, as this will take even more time away from your work.

Strategy 2: Experiment

Once you’ve concluded that you are a perfectionist and your work is suffering as a result, you can take steps to change. One method is to expose yourself to imperfection until you are comfortable with it. For this to work, you need to identify situations that cause your perfectionist behaviour. Write these situations down and rank them in terms of difficulty.

Start changing the lower-ranked items first and work your way up. If you spend hours typing and proofreading e-mails to make sure they are error-free, try deliberately inserting a couple of typos in an e-mail to your boss. Does he notice? Are you reprimanded?

“In most of these situations, you will find there are minimal consequences, if any. But you will have to expose yourself repeatedly to these situations, so expect to feel uncomfortable. If you choose an appropriately difficult situation, you should feel uncomfortable. A successful exposure practice is one that you complete, regardless of how you feel,” says Dr. Antony.

Strategy 3: Response prevention

Another method to combat perfectionism is response prevention. This means stopping yourself from engaging in perfectionist behaviours. Don’t spend hours memorizing your speaking notes for a lecture. This may make you uncomfortable at first, but once you realize that your students are not criticizing your performance, your anxiety will lessen.

Strategy 4:Challenge your beliefs

Rather than assuming that your perfectionist beliefs are true, examine the evidence for these beliefs. What would really happen if things don’t go perfectly? What does “perfect” even mean? Is your definition of perfect attainable? Try writing your definition of perfect for a particular situation (for example, a perfect lecture) and show it to a few others. Do they agree with it?

“There's always pressure to do better in academe and industry. Increase productivity, make that big sale, get published in that top-ranked journal. I’m not saying it’s not good to have goals – far from it. It’s when people measure their self-worth on whether they can meet these goals that a problem arises. They might go on to suffer from anxiety or depression for fear that they won’t meet those standards,” he says.

The ultimate goal is for you to accept the possibility of imperfection. You can’t control everything, nor prepare for every possible situation. If you feel that you may need more help, visit your institution’s health centre or see a psychologist.

Want to know more?

 Read our news article: Perfectionist professors have lower research productivity.

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