How to escape perfectionism as an excellent researcher

If you want an academic career, you have to excel at so many levels. First and foremost you must show an excellent publication record, with many articles preferably in A status journals. Then there is teaching and supervising students: requires high quality lectures, committed availability, personal feedback, but hardly the time to prepare and deliver. Not to mention being the nice, helpful colleague (or partner, or parent). If you are not up to par with these standards, you fail. At least that is how many early career researchers think.

The problem is the utopian criteria for excellence. They constantly shift – upwards, and focus on approval from others (peer review reports, student evaluations, etc.). This puts a lot of pressure on early career researchers. They are liable to tip over from striving for excellence, growth and success to keeping up appearances, trying to be perfect to avoid disapproval, blame and shame.

I think all of us occasionally grapple with perfectionism. Who does not privately remember that time you finished a paper or review, really, but did not send it off because you were afraid what people would think about it? What if you overlooked a mistake? What if your writing did not meet your supervisor’s standards? What if the super critical peer reviewer turned it down? We tend to keep these doubts and fears to ourselves. It is just not cool. We feel disconnected from those around us and not safe to talk about these feelings or thoughts. I have written before about the powers and pitfalls of introvert researchers, and while I do not believe perfectionism applies exclusively to introverts, I do suspect they are more likely to struggle with it.

Of course it is wise to put you writing on the shelf for a while and come back to it later with a fresh mind and new ideas. Of course it is prudent to prepare for your lecture and arrive well-rested. This is healthy striving for excellence. But it is completely different from indefinitely postponing to put your work out there for fear that it is not perfect and for pulling all-nighters preparing a ‘routine’ lecture. Endlessly putting off publishing your work or handing in your thesis is not healthy, not cool, not effective, especially if your try to avoid being seen and expose your work to critical feedback for fear of other’s judgements and to avoid shame. In her book Daring Greatly (p. 128ff), Brené Brown points out what distinguishes striving for excellence from perfectionism. She argues that perfectionism is a defensive move, a shield that hinders our growth and prevents us from being seen. It is not self-improvement, but an effort to gain approval from others. As such, striving for perfection does not lead to success, but is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction and a life of missed opportunities.

Despite their successful appearance, so many of my clients, PhD’s PostDocs and even newly appointed UD’s and Assistant Professors, grapple with this draining and crippling belief system of perfectionism. They identify with their work: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” — as Brown puts it. They focus on how others might judge them. For PhD candidates this obviously is a dangerous road: you can guess what happens to your confidence and self-esteem when an experiment fails, writing a section takes 3 times longer than expected, or a paper gets rejected. But even those who win a personal research grant after obtaining their doctorate are not immune to this way of thinking. And in case there is ample objective evidence of your success and excellence, e.g. if you are one of the lucky few offered a teaching position on a tenure track in academia these days? Even then many keep their focus on others rather than on themselves: “What will ‘they’ think?” rather than “How can I improve?”. (As in this example.)

“The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds”, says Brené Brown (p. 129). Perfectionism is self-destructive precisely because perfection is an ideal: utopian and unachievable.

Letting go of the stiffling grip of perfection requires the courage to be imperfect and the self-compassion for being good enough as you are. There is nothing wrong with high ambitions and a very competitive strive for excellence. But we will be much happier and healthier if we give ourselves a break from perfectionism. Academics are trained to be ruthlessly critical of their own and other’s work. No wonder they apply that skill to their self-evaluation. What would happen if your self-talk were a little kinder, a little gentler? I have written about that before.

By way of an experiment I propose you follow this strategy by Kirstin Neff in her book on Self-Compassion: whenever you fail or feel inadequate, try being kind to yourself and understanding rather than ignoring your pain or criticizing yourself. Find a trusted friend or colleague to talk about your experience. Chances are your will find the common humanity of your feelings. It is very comforting to realize that this is something we all experience rather than that you are the only one. And lastly, be mindful of your negative emotions: don’t suppress or exaggerate them because you cannot be truly mindful of your emotions if you are completely swamped by them.

Being kind to yourself is an art that is worthwhile to practice (as you can read here and here). Curious how you are doing in terms of self-compassion? Kristin Neff has a nice test for it.

What are your strategies for dealing with perfectionism?


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