Grad school is often the final phase of structured education and it is also the transitional process to a desired professional or academic identity.
As you point your sights towards your future as a professional in your field. There is often a sense that it is a critical "make-it-or-break-it" point for progress into an academic or professional career. It is also the point where academically you are given the most freedom and responsibility for self-definition and self-correction as you establish yourself personally as an authority in your domain.
This situation is both a challenge and an opportunity. With the imagined weight of their professional future hanging in the balance, it is not surprising that most grad students work very hard and put forward their best efforts... but for some students, this transition is a psychological tipping point. For a student who is already inclined to define themselves by academic excellence, this sometimes creates a situation where their need for achievement leads to an "over-valued idea" about doing "perfect" work
Grad students vary in their susceptibility to be pushed by positive and negative pressures and the departments in which they find themselves vary in the amounts of pressure or reward that they offer.
Levels of perfectionism therefore will vary from person to person and situation to situation, depending on the value that you, or others in your life, place on achievement in academics. (You may, for example, be very perfectionistic about school projects, but not perfectionistic about housekeeping). But often when perfectionism is problematic it appears in many parts a person's life.
Four Signs of Perfectionism
- Setting very high standards and placing high importance on these standards. Feeling that you will be a second rate person if you do not live up to these standards
- Preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, and organization.
- Concern and negative reactions to mistakes. Having a tendency to interpret mistakes as failure and believing that you will lose the respect of others for your mistakes.
- Doubting your ability to do a task.
NOTE: Perfectionism is not to be mistaken for effort and desire for excellence
Origin in the family
Anxiety and concern about mistakes distinguishes perfectionism from healthy effort and desire for excellence. The origin of these concerns can often be found in childhood.
Perfectionists often resonate with statements such as:
- "My parents expected excellence."
- "I was punished for being less than perfect."
- "I could never reach my parent's standards."
These internalized standards were developed in early life and may have been automatically transferred to professors, supervisors and whole academic departments so that they are responded to with the same over-heated desire for approval and fear of rejection that was originally directed towards family members.
Perfectionists are certainly better than average at:
- Setting unobtainably high goals for themselves and considering themselves a failure when these goals are not met.
- Feeling that others have set unobtainable standards and goals for them and believing that they must meet these goals to gain the other's approval.
- Setting unreasonably high goals and standards for others and then suffering from hostile feelings when others cannot, do not or will not live up to them.
Human and non-human solutions:
- Because perfectionism leads a person to treat supervisors and professors as potentially hypercritical others, it reduces the likelihood of turning to them for help and guidance in the very areas where they are the most expert.
Because perfectionism makes self-exposure as a flawed and frightened person so frightening and shameful, it prevents a person from turning to others for human comfort and regulation.
Instead of turning to others for help, support and a realistic perspective on their projects, perfectionist students may turn to non-human solutions such as:
- Self medication with drugs and alcohol to lower their physical tension or escape into addictive computer games... or even excessive housework to distract them
- Use of performance enhancing stimulants to increase their ability to prod produce, produce at an inhuman rate.
- Unconsciously driven neglect and inattention can lead to "hardware solutions" to perfectionist pressure. Computers break down at in-opportune moments leading to psychologically acceptable delays and respites.
- Psychosomatic solutions: The continual high level of self doubt, self criticalness, isolation and anxiety may become too much to handle psychologically and lead to breakdown. Physical illnesses which are most easily affected by stress such as headaches, migraines, stomach problems and asthma become exacerbated . While they are physically distressing they provide a much needed psychological respite. Often students who respond physically to stress also suffered in this way as children when feeling sick was considered by perfectionistic parents as the only acceptable reason for a break from school effort.
Perfectionism exacts a high price.
- Because perfectionism refuses to compassionately admit to human limits, it continually undermines self esteem. It makes it impossible to accept the inadequacies and frailties which are the result of our individual uniqueness which we must accept in order to accept ourselves.
Because it proposes inhuman standards on self and others, it makes it impossible to ever feel successful, accomplished or proud... no matter how much good work has been done.
At the graduate school level original thinking becomes part of the skill set that the academic program is trying to develop. When perfectionism limits spontaneity, flexibility, and willingness to take risks and explore imperfect partial responses, it also tends to limit or block creativity.
The impossibly extreme demands that perfectionism creates can lead to equally extreme feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and despair.... and a loss of realistic perspective on the situation as thoughts and emotions circle endlessly, trapped between the impossibility of the imagined demands and the (equally imagined) shame of failure to live up to these outrageous standards. Depression can result as you psychologically "stall out" in the face of what feels like an impossible situation.
Tackling perfectionism is challenge which leads to real personal development.
The good news is that since much of the problem is internal to the sufferer it is not usually necessary to drop out of an "impossibly" demanding program or to take up arms against an "abusive" academic system.
Perfectionism is a barrier to psychological and professional development.
Fear of not being able to meet challenges "perfectly" often results in procrastination and the avoidance of stimulating but more risky challenges. Perfectionists may actually workbelow their true level of performance in order to avoid any possibility of failure. Research and writing may be limited to areas that feel safe and easy. Academic work may be limited in amount, stereotyped in style or defined entirely by what will please someone else.
It is worth struggling to lay aside perfectionism because the benefits of putting down that burden are real and important.
Often what is needed is an internal reality check. Since much perfectionism begins in family life, it is often helpful to tease out the true origin of your ideas around what makes you a worthwhile human being. It may be helpful to seek out the support of a trained counselor as you examine the roots of your stress-producing perfectionistic ideal. Sometimes what is most needed is compassionate and encouraging human contact which provides reassurance that you are valuable and valued in the world as a person outside your studies.
Feeling less perfectionistic facilitates:
- Higher and more genuine self-esteem and self compassion.
- Better, warmer and richer personal and professional relationships.
- More flexibility, creativity, curiosity and exploration.
Tackling perfectionism can result in better health, less psychological distress, better human relationships inside and out of school.... and paradoxically, better, more creative academic production. Putting aside perfectionism creates time and mental space for self exploration and self-creation outside the academic domain and leads to a fuller richer human life.