On academic perfectionism: a year-long reflection

Perfectionism. That internal nagging feeling when you expect yourself to always excel at what you do, that you can never submit imperfect work; that if your work is not perfect, you are too.

It is something that you may realize, or other people do it for you. I don’t remember having any nagging feelings when I was in high school. Nor in my early Bachelor’s degree. It did, however, start developing when I was entering my final year.

I noticed myself stressing over the substance of term papers. Was this paragraph good enough? Was this idea “perfect”? But it was still minor back then.

I noticed it again when I was co-authoring a paper during my internship at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. There were four Indonesian interns (me included) and we were expected to write a sort of “review” article on political developments. It was in mid-2014, during the heat of the presidential election, and we were supposed to review campaign tactics. I thought it was going to be like another school project; just write up stuff as usual and submit. But, when I had to translate raw data into paragraphs, I noticed I wasn’t moving as fast as usual. Every word I typed, I rethought. Then, deleted. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually, I finished my part of the paper, but it took me longer than I expected. Mostly because I was furiously editing myself.

Then, it happened again when I was composing my undergraduate thesis on Japanese security policy. I found myself hesitating and reluctant, deleting every word I typed, as if someone was watching over my shoulder and whispering (not in an ASMR-like fashion) that everything I’m writing is shit and wrong.

I didn’t understand what was happening until a friend pointed out I may be a perfectionist. I shrugged them off, simply joking it away.

During my Masters, it got even worse. I constantly felt that I had to present perfect work, since I was one of the youngest in the cohort amidst working professionals (on the bright side, I also learned a lot from military men) and other academically-oriented people. It got to the point where I intentionally cut off contact with friends and suspended hobbies just to perfect my writing. It wasn’t healthy. 

And now, it’s still there, as I prepare lesson plans and my PhD proposal. There’s always that nagging feeling that I left something out, that fear that what I’m writing won’t match up to the standards of the imaginary audience who is waiting to jump on a critical flaw which will end my career.

I sought help from my close friends. They continued giving me the same advice: chill down, nobody’s perfect so don’t worry too much. But they just didn’t get it. It wasn’t long after that I found a series of articles in Inside Higher Ed written by Kerry Rockquemore that finally made me listen to my close friends. I was finally convinced I had a chronic case of academic perfectionism.

Thus began my journey to understand why I’m like this and how to reduce its impact on my life. I finally decided to tackle the issue through long periods of introspection. What you’re reading now is the result of a year-long process of self-reflection.

The “why” of the issue, I think is evident. Judging from commentary by my close friends, I often have an unhealthy ambitious drive, which I believe stems from insecurity. Ergo, I feel that I need to prove myself all the time because I feel that once I mess up, everything I’ve worked for would instantly come crumbling down. I felt I was an impostor, a phony who didn’t deserve this position, but only got it out of sheer luck. My friends would quickly refute this point, stating my achievements and effort, but I continued to reject their input. Until I finally sat down in silence and started actually thinking about it. Turns out they’re right and I was being too hard on myself.

Which brings me to the second part, how to alleviate the impact of nagging perfectionism. Note that I do not intend this to be one of those prescriptive self-help posts—there’s already a ton of those out there. This is just a description of what I did to lessen perfectionism. 

The first step is admitting the problem. Without proper acknowledgement, constant denial is inevitable and a solution will never present itself. But this is often hard to do, even with the help of friends. It took me years to finally admit that I was an unhealthy perfectionist. From there on, I would finally accept advice from friends and family, and let them help me.

The second step is to recognize that perfectionism, in teensy doses, is okay. It is not wrong to expect high standards; in fact, doing so is necessary for progress. However, setting absurdly high standards is a recipe for self-loathing. It is better to do the best one can possibly due given the constraints, then revise afterwards. In the words of Academic Twitter: “A good dissertation is a finished one. A great dissertation is a published one. A perfect dissertation is neither.”

The third step is to not attach myself to my work too much. This is hard to do, especially when spending months on a manuscript is commonplace. Inevitably, the manuscript becomes an integral part of me. For it to be criticized, means a critique of my Self. For it to be rejected, means rejection of my Self. This, as I have found, is not healthy. Failure or rejection is normal. Besides, I’m much more multifaceted than a single manuscript.

The last step is to basically accept that nothing will ever be perfect. There’s always going to be a lack of data or a mistaken argument. There’s always going to be nitpicky people who will never accept what I have to say. There’s always something that can go wrong. That all is normal. As Academic Twitter says: “To err is human, to err repeatedly is research.”

Though I’m pretty much still a perfectionist, at the very least, I’m now able to control myself and not embark on an unhealthy downward spiral. When my friends tell me I’m overdoing it, I listen to them and tone it down. It’s still hard to click the “submit” button without forcing three or more rounds of self-imposed revisions, though.

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