Imperfect perfectionism

Are you finding it difficult to make progress on your assignments or dissertation? Are you dissatisfied with your work? Do you find that it takes too long to finish tasks?

Do you notice that, despite your hard work, it feels it is not good enough? Are you wondering how you will get it all done in time?

If so, you are not alone. It is common to experience these feelings when we care about producing high quality work.
It can be motivating to aim for high standards, provided the focus is on learning and aiming for improvement. It is rewarding to see our finished work, particularly when we achieve good results.

However, when the only objective is the relentless pursuit of flawless work, it can trigger significant distress preventing learning (Ben-Shahar, 2009).

This is described as perfectionism, a condition that can develop as a result of pursuing impossible standards. Over a prolonged period, it can lead to stress and a negative impact on health. It can undermine confidence in our ability, and we can lose hope in our capacity to get things done.

There are many factors that can lead to the development of perfectionism. For example, in Western societies, there is a tendency to equate time with efficiency.

As a result, many find it difficult to take breaks because they do not feel they can afford it.

A common experience is having difficulty in tolerating imperfections and being highly self-critical. Sometimes these high standards are applied to how we feel about us. For example, having thoughts such as “I shouldn’t feel frustrated, or down”; or “If it isn’t perfect, I’m no good.” These self-critical thoughts may have a negative impact on mood and confidence.

Other factors that play a role in maintaining perfectionism are related to the way we interpret information, having rigid beliefs about how things should be. Our expectations can influence how we interpret things. For example, if we expect to fail, we are more likely to notice mistakes rather than acknowledge the progress we are making.

Fear of failure is another underlying factor. Perfectionistic tendencies manifest in the belief that we should not make mistakes and viewing these as a sign of lack of ability.

This rigid view can trigger significant distress that can prevent completing the task (Ben-Shahar, 2012).

In academic work, we look for high standards as a way of motivating ourselves to get good results. We learn better if we pursue goals that challenge us (Brown et al., 2014). However, the danger is that we may focus so much on avoiding making mistakes that we can feel stuck and lose confidence in our ability to do the work.

We tend to be very subjective when it comes to evaluating our work, thinking it is not good enough. We believe that our self-doubt is evidence that we cannot do the work up to a high standard, and we worry about failing.

We are more likely to look for the mistakes we have made, paying attention to what is wrong rather than paying attention to the progress we are making. As a result, we tend to correct and redo what we are working on to improve it to meet the impossibly high standards we set for ourselves.

Strategies to overcome perfectionism

Identify self-critical thoughts: Notice when you have negative thoughts about your work, about yourself, or if you are anticipating negative outcomes.

These thoughts tend to appear randomly. We do not choose them, although if we do not challenge them, they become habitual thinking patterns over time.

Once you notice the negative thoughts, ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful?”
As you become aware of the negative thoughts, and you get used to challenging them, you can prevent getting into these habitual thinking patterns.

They are preventing you from thinking about what you can do to make progress. Then, ask yourself: “what one thing can I do now to move forward?”

 Identify unhelpful thinking patterns. Here are a few:
Black or white: that is viewing only one extreme or the other.
Catastrophising: when we see things way out of proportion.
Jumping to conclusions: when we think we know what
   others are thinking, or we anticipate future outcomes.
– “Shoulds” and “musts”: having unreasonable demands.

Develop self-compassion: Treat yourself with kindness, like you would behave towards your best friend.
It is about having the awareness that you are human and that sometimes mistakes can happen.

It also means acknowledging your intention to do good work, and that you are making efforts towards your goal (Gilbert, 2010).

Take breaks: Give yourself time to restore your energy. It also provides you with an opportunity to step back from your work. This way, when you return to it, you can look at it with fresh eyes. Often, just a few minutes can allow you to notice what you can edit or correct to get unstuck.

By taking time to reflect on your work, you can make progress while preventing the negative effects of stress.

Re-evaluate achievement:

Develop a flexible attitude and focus on what you are learning and the progress you are making. View achievement as the gradual process of moving forward towards your goal. This will reduce the tension you experience, freeing up your brain to be more creative.

We learn best with positive emotions, so changing perspective will increase your ability to achieve better results, and it will boost your motivation to follow through with challenging tasks. 

Think in terms of “good enough IS good enough”.
View your work as a draft that you are developing through several revisions. It will feel uncomfortable to submit your work when you do not feel it is ready. This way, you will meet the deadline and get feedback that you can use to improve your work.

Practise getting your drafts in by the deadline and notice how you gradually can get more done.

Writer’s block? Get unstuck with free writing
If you are feeling stuck, or you are finding it difficult to start writing, you can use  “free writing” as a strategy to develop your thinking. Free writing (Elbow, 2000) is an exercise where you write without stopping and without checking grammar or spelling.

The key is to keep writing the thoughts that come to mind and keep your hand moving. This exercise works best using pen and paper, although if you prefer to use your laptop, try this instead.

For example, “I am not sure what to write next” “I am waiting for an idea to emerge.”

If you are writing in a second language and you cannot think of the word in English, use the word in your native language.

Once you have written a draft, review it to develop your ideas and then edit it to correct the grammar and spelling.

Ways to overcome fear of failure

View mistakes as part of the learning process. Be curious about what went wrong. Identify what you could do different next time so that you can use the information to improve your work.

Expect that it may take time to achieve results. It is likely that several trial and errors will be necessary to understand a concept or get a result in an experiment. If it does not work at the first attempt, it does not mean you cannot get a positive result later.

Break down tasks into small steps. The word emotion comes from Latin “movereto move”. It is our emotions that provide us with the energy to act (Gollewitzer & Oettingen, 2015).

Think of one small step you can take to start an assignment or continue with an aspect of your dissertation. Starting with very small steps enables us to have immediate feedback on how we are doing, which is motivating to continue to persevere with our efforts.

Visualise the process. As you plan your task visualise the steps needed to complete it. Then, focus on what you need to do for each step and imagine following through with each.

Ask yourself: “What do I need to make progress here?” What could be the possible obstacles to work on this?” “What other options could I consider?”

When focussing on the process visualise a realistic outcome. By identifying the possible obstacles, we are more likely to persevere with our efforts when we meet challenges (Oettingen, 2015).

 “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” (Voltaire)

References:
Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The pursuit of perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. New York: MacGraw-Hill Books.

Berkman, E.T. (2008) The Neuroscience of goals and behaviour change: Lessons learned from Consulting Psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick: The science of successsful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.

David, S. (2016) “Emotional agility. Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life.” London: Penguin

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Elbow, P. (2000) Writing with power. Techniques for mastering the writing process. New York: Oxfor University Press.

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, Attitude, Intention, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. How to use compassion to develop happiness, self-acceptance and wellbeing. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

Oettingen, G. (2015) Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Penguin.