The anxiety of perfectionism

Dear Professors,

I have always wished I could explain my perfectionism to you, but when you ask about it, I am usually standing before you, tears streaming down my face, tongue-tied by anxiety.

I want to explain my perfectionism to you because I want to dispel myths to combat what my mind tells me is your personal judgement, but what I know is a culture of silence around perfectionism in academia. Here goes my “best” attempt. (Note: It is impossible to achieve my best, as you will see. The bar gets raised higher every time I try.)

I procrastinate but I am not lazy. I care immensely. Procrastination for me goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism and anxiety. Intense anxiety. The kind of anxiety of which committing a sentence to paper feels like spitting out a shard of glass. It’s not that I think I can’t produce the assignment. I know I can write 2,000 words. I know I can do a literature review or a research proposal. Still, every assignment balloons out of proportion and perspective in my head. Soon there’s nowhere to begin and the project becomes massive and nebulous. I feel compelled to do every assignment justice, read every relevant article on every database, and find every nuance to every problem. This is perhaps why my professors often remind me I am not yet writing my thesis. But in my head, every project has become a thesis and I must prove I have thought everything out and haven’t neglected a single piece of the puzzle.

I’m not sure you realize it, but office hours are scary, even if you aren’t. For a perfectionist, being lost and uncertain is unacceptable and is equivalent to failure. There is no grey area permitted for learning. Simply getting to your office hours is even harder if I’ve procrastinated and have nothing to show for it, despite having depleted the world’s store of sticky notes and having bookmarked approximately half the Internet’s contents. I feel like I haven’t earned your time and attention unless I’ve produced tangible work. And if I have managed to write something, all I want is your reassurance—but I am simultaneously terrified of letting you see work that is incomplete. I am convinced I am an imposter, and letting you view a work in progress is the surest route to being found out.

As I stumble and careen my way from assignment to assignment, I know I usually leave a trail of ‘A’s behind in my wake. Contrary to what you may think, however, I am motivated by assignments but not by marks, and am mortified when you think I only ever reduce my learning to letter grades. I am committed to my assignments as ends in themselves, and genuinely want to learn and understand deeply.

I know it might seem like I’m obsessed with my grades, but for me they signify so much more than an A or A+; they are intricately tied up in my self-worth, background and identity. Nor am I proud of those grades. All I see in every assignment are gaping flaws. If I’ve written an assignment in one night, I don’t feel like I worked hard enough to deserve my mark, but then again, no matter how long I spend on a project, whatever I produce never begins to scratch the surface of what I was trying to think about and convey. I’m equal parts worried you’ll think I actually produced my best work (“but I can do so much better!”) or that you can tell that I didn’t give it my all. Perfectionism mires me in a never-ending cycle of disappointment and shame that resurfaces with every assignment, and with the mocking standards I imagine all around.

Keeping the “state of perfectionism” in mind, here are my tips on how to help support your classroom perfectionist:

When I feel like I can’t begin, please don’t tell me that I always produce quality work or that you’re looking forward to reading my paper. I know it’s said with the best of intentions but it makes me think that you have a particular standard for me to reach, and I’m convinced that this will be the time I fail to reach it.

Encourage us to come to you early on for help writing an outline if needed. This will help pin the project down and rid it of its ever-enlarging, frightening shapelessness that keeps us from getting started. The approach that’s worked best for me is when one of us takes notes while we chat – notes I can later turn into an outline. Conversing helps prove to me that I am not actually starting at ground zero; I always already have some background knowledge, thoughts and opinions about a subject. Explicitly telling me how many articles and sources you expect us to check in total is also helpful. I won’t stop reading articles unless I’m given a limit or have exhausted my time. On that note, proposals are frightening but useful in forcing me to have something written down, which gives me something to fall back on lest I delve back into procrastination.

Please keep in mind, though, that procrastination is an impossible deed to reverse. Flexible deadlines are acknowledgements of the messiness of life and mental illness, and they result in greatly reduced stress and guilt. It takes courage to ask for these kinds of accommodations – to know and advocate for oneself – and the student who brings these concerns forth generally wants to do their best.

Explicitly remind your class that it is okay to come see you before they’ve completed their work. You want to see us most of all when we are struggling, which includes struggling to get started. Leaving your door ajar if you are available or having your office hours posted on your door can also be very helpful for the panicked student who wants to come to you but feels like they can visit you only during office hours.

I’ve shown perfectionist tendencies since I was four. I also live in a time of neoliberalism, which rewards me for working myself to the bone—but the two are not causally linked. I don’t choose my perfectionism (encouraged by neoliberalism), and can do only my best to be proactive about it. Perfectionism is a legitimate form of mental illness.

My relationship to perfectionism is perverse: I need it to accrue achievements which make me feel special and worthwhile (at least temporarily), but I am simultaneously unable to internalize them and ashamed of my dependency on external assessments. To this end, even if you can see the hurt it causes, you cannot cure my perfectionism. Docking grades for overdoing projects or maintaining rigid deadlines will make me worry more about word counts and your expectations, but they will not change my thinking and writing process. The best you can do is help by putting things into perspective. Perfectionism spurs – and is spurred by – anxiety. I might seem rational, but when I’m anxious, my mind is out on a 10-mile sprint with no end in sight, or else is being dragged along like a puppet behind a car on a freeway, leaving me breathless and reeling. Anxiety obscurs my thinking and keeps me from holding onto any one thought long enough for it to register. Taking the time to spell things out for me, putting a situation into perspective when I cannot do the same for myself, is greatly appreciated.

I see perfectionism as a curse disguised as a blessing, but with your understanding and support, in conjunction with my own mental health work, you can help me keep my brain in check. Your willingness to listen, comfort and reassure will help remove barriers to my learning. And at the end of the day, all I want to do is to learn.

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