Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

Last year I had a health crisis, brought on by many years of just working too many hours.

After about 15 years of regularly doing 50 or 60 hour weeks something inside me just… snapped. It started with unexpected bouts of tears at work, then rapidly progressed to anxiety attacks, exhaustion and mood swings. The next step would probably have been depression, but luckily I took some action before that happened.

After more than a decade of working with PhD students experiencing mental health issues, I should have recognised some of the symptoms of burn out sooner. I have to say, it was a disconcerting experience. The temptation to stay in bed and avoid everything and everyone was strong. It’s taken a year, and quite a few different strategies, to find my way back to health and balance. A hard year, but in retrospect, I’m glad to learn my limits – and be forced to examine the effects my overwork on others.

Part of the solution was therapy, which has helped me see my tendency towards ‘rumination’: obsessive and repetitive thought patterns that can make it hard to concentrate and be present in the moment. My mind is always asking tricky “… but what if?” questions – you know, the extremely plausible sounding ones that only increase anxiety. I’ve often felt I’m in a pitched battle with my own mind.

I think I now understand one reason why mental health is such an issue for PhD candidates (and academics for that matter). We have minds that are conditioned by years and years of arguing. I’m extremely skilled at arguing with myself and building elaborate theories about what will go wrong in the future (based, it must be said, on scant evidence in the present). Now my strategy to counteract these thoughts is to pretend I am at a tiresome academic seminar, full of tedious old farts from around the faculty who have turned up just to give me a hard time… I’m getting better at telling them to shut up.

One of the things my therapist has been encouraging me to explore is a certain tendency to perfectionism. I have never identified as a perfectionist before, mostly because I have associated perfectionism with being ‘stuck’. I’ve met plenty of students who are so afraid of failing they can’t start – or they start over and over again, deleting all their previous work. By contrast, I am good at getting shit done. I can get a project out the door.

What I didn’t consider is that my standards are ridiculously high – not just in my work, but in my life. I take on more projects than I should – and they tend to be difficult. I will put in ridiculously long hours to keep up with my ambition to do these difficult projects. I’m always worried my work isn’t good enough. These feelings aren’t really the so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ (which is not actually a diagnosable condition), rather I think the constant worry is just a natural reaction to dealing with the hypercritical world of academia itself.

After my therapist encouraged me to research the problem, I discovered all this literature on ‘functional’ or ‘adaptive’ perfectionism. The symptoms might sound familiar:

  • A tendency to aim high at all times, even when it is not strictly necessary
  • Wanting to do your best at all times, even at the expense of your health and wellbeing
  • The perception that others expect a lot of you, coupled with a fear that you will not live up to these expectations
  • A need for control; over self and environment

The result of these thinking patterns is a tendency to excessive overwork – and constant worry that you will disappoint people. In myself, the need for control manifests in my obsession with a system to manage everything and an inability to sit in a window seat on a plane.

The difference between functional perfectionism and ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism is that a functional perfectionist can take pleasure in their success and cope a bit better with failure. A functional perfectionist will throw a party when they achieve something, where a maladaptive perfectionist will ignore their success and immediately set out on a more unreachable goal. A functional perfectionist has learned to harness their tendencies to good effect – this blog is a good example. When Pat Thomson and I studied academic blogs we found the vast majority published irregularly and did not have a coherent content strategy. Most academics seem happy just to put their thoughts out there for others to discover. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but I just can’t bring myself to be so… relaxed. My blogging has RULES, around quality, formatting and content, which I have not deviated from in nearly nine years. That’s just a little bit… uptight, right? However, this attention to detail has resulted in the blog becoming a popular and trusted source of advice with around 100,000 followers on various channels. Perfectionism can have pay offs.

When I explained these insights to my sister, Anitra, she described perfectionism as a ‘spectrum disorder’. I think this is a great way of thinking about it: at one end are perfectionists who suffer from worry and anxiety, but are able to get things done; on the other end are people so paralysed by fear that they don’t do anything (or throw out everything they do because they perceive it as “not good enough”). Looked at this way, I would say almost every academic I have ever met would fall somewhere along the spectrum. I’m actually beginning to wonder if one can even DO the job without being somewhere on that spectrum.

So what can you do about it? For a start, you can just try to notice perfectionistic tendencies in action. The other day I found myself holding up a team member’s work while I fussed over the name of a survey she was about to send out. This was a good moment to reflect on what was important: the name, or the fact that the survey was sent to people? When I contemplate a new project or piece of writing, I take a moment to picture how I imagine the outcome. Then I ask myself whether my mental picture is realistic given the multiple time and resource constraints I’m facing and adjust my expectations accordingly.

The other piece of the puzzle is to try to be kind to yourself (I’m still working on this).

I’ll admit, I was worried that tackling my perfectionist tendency was going to result in a drop off of work quality. It remains to be seen if this is the case, but after a month or so of practice being less-than-perfect, I don’t think so. I suspect I sweat over tiny details, which are mostly invisible to others. How about you? Do you identify on the perfectionist spectrum? How do you harness your tendencies to the good, or does it get in the way of your success and health? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

PhD Paralysis

Are there only four kinds of writers?

Elsewhere: Self compassion counterbalances maladaptive perfectionism

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18 thoughts on “Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing! I wanted to share a book I recently read (I lie, I actually listened to it on Audible) that really helped me in this area. It is titled “How to be an Imperfectionist” by Stephen Guise. I recommend it!

  2. Thanks for the reminder that is ok to be human and that these sorts of experiences can help us all to recognise challenges, get support, support others and be mindful of the researchers ww want to be. As an older “newby” post like these are what helped me decide to tackle my PhD, realising that i would survive the mistakes I’m am going to make! All the best and thanks again.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your candid experiences, I identify with so much of this! I was nodding all the way through reading, though mine was/is perhaps less functional than yours. I used to think that academia caused my perfectionism, but now I think it just nurtured it. When I ‘escaped’ from the academy, my perfectionist tendencies followed me. I suspect that I arrived in academia with a latent perfectionism that was made to feel perfectly at home, and stoked by the intensity of the academic context. I have learned that being kind to myself is an underdeveloped skill, and I am working on it all the time.

  4. As a perfectionist PhD student, thank you for this post. Not ruminating but more aware, and the need to be kind to myself…(so darn hard!)

  5. This is me all over. Had a long PhD journey (lots of extensions) because I just couldn’t get my thesis “right”. Led to a thesis I’m now really proud of, although I couldn’t bring myself to read it until recently – about 2 years down the track. I’ve since left academia after a mental health crisis triggered by burnout (very similar to your story!) but those perfectionist tendencies are still “me”. Most recently, having trouble coping with early pregnancy because I’m not doing it “right” = holding myself to my own high ideals due to unpredictable nausea. This is an important reminder to be kind and gentle. And it’s ok to let a few balls drop out of the air.

  6. This post came at the perfect time – I kid you not. I had a similar experience to what you describe at the beginning of your post just yesterday and had one prior to that at the beginning of last month and October. I’m beginning to notice a pattern. But at the heart of it all is my perfectionism and need to control as much as I can (which has, needless to say, negatively impacted not only my work but also my mental and physical health in more ways than one). However, despite reading up on the subjects, listening about it, talking to people about it (even a therapist), I have yet to find out how to quieten that perfectionistic voice inside me…but for real. Not just talk to myself positively or show more self-compassion – but really get those perfectionistic urges out of the way. If you have any suggestions, I’d be really grateful.

    Oh, and if it’s any consolation, I wouldn’t say the quality of your writing or blog in general has dropped since you lowered your criteria a bit. 🙂 And I’m glad to hear you’re back on your feet!

  7. Great blog, and thank you for being so candid – being transparent about our lives is super-helpful for everyone.

    I feel everything we struggle with in life is the result of our excessive focus on the mind at the expense of all else. For most of us, the intellect reigns supreme and the body is the simply the inconvenient lump that gets us from A to B.

    We live in parts, not as a whole, and academia well and truly reinforces this erroneous model. Happily (although we won’t think so at the time) our body will always let us know the mind-driven model doesn’t work – in the form of symptoms, accidents, illness and disease.

    We need to consider the whole of us, as does academia. The ‘way things are done around here’, from theses to tenured work, are not supportive of well-rounded human life.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing! It is not easy to keep the “right” level of perfectionism in academia. Learning to let go of some things and be kind to ourselves is definitely not easy. Personnally I feel that the more I am stressed out, the more I want to be in control of everything (not only PhD, but administrative duties, house cleaning, diet, exercise, etc.), which just leads to a vicious circle. Maybe looking honestly at what has been achieved is the best solution. If that helps, just think of all the PhD students you have helped/are helping, directly and indirectly through your blog: that is a real achievement, and it is there, it won’t go away, even if you have to take a rest and look after yourself from time to time.

  9. Dear Inger,

    my gosh! With this amazingly authentic, candid post you have certainly put yourself ‘out there’ (even more than you usually do!) THANK YOU SO MUCH for having the determination, empathy and guts to do so! I am sure it will prompt many PhDs and academics reflect on their (harsh) self perceptions and challenge them. Coming from you this is SO powerful given the arena we work in where anyone not committed 250% to the “supra-logic of productivity” is often regarded as deficit (Green, 2009, pp. 243-244); this is despite the increasing acknowledgement of the costs of doing a PhD/being an academic. For me your post also emphasises how little we have progressed in shifting entrenched discourses – it’s not from lack of commitment though (ironic huh?) It also resonates with Salmon’s (1992) seminal work where she equated the development of “inner factors” (p. 15) during candidature (or academic work/other work) to having developed the courage, knowledge and confidence to step out from “behind the skirts of others, [no longer] fearful of making any statement or judgement that can not be supported by a reference to published work” (p. 16). Significantly, as you and others affirm, the growth of these inner factors is counted amongst the most difficult aspects of undertaking meaningful PhD (and other) research (Lovitts, 2005; Salmon, 1992; Stevens & Asmar, 1999).
    BRAVO Inger and I am SOOOOO pleased you are feeling so much better!

  10. Hi Inger,

    Thanks so much for this incredibly honest look inside your personal life and struggles. And good on you for recognising you had a problem and addressing it before it hit serious crisis point!

    I’m well into one end of the spectrum! I’m overly ambitious in what I try to achieve and overly ordered in my approach and beat myself up when the outcome isn’t outstanding.

    I’ve recently taken on a manager role and am struggling with the idea of everyone in my team being held to the same unreasonable expectations I hold for myself. I’m also struggling with the idea that not everyone in my team will be coming from a perfectionist PhD background – there are different approaches to work being done and differing levels of support required for different team members. I’m totally comfortable with this idea, but it feels like just another thing I have to try to master now!

    I’m hoping that after I’ve been in the role a while I can get a better sense of what’s really important and where you can just let go. With benefits to all of the team members – development opportunities for them and less stress for me.

    My biggest fear is that the stress and over work will get to me before the team settles down – but I’m taking lots of naps in the mean time!

  11. Oh Inger I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been going through this – especially since it’s all so very familiar to me! Every bit of it – the high-functioning perfectionism, the hard work leading to success, the over-commitment, the eventual exhaustion, the burn out, the lack of self-compassion.

    I too had been working like a maniac for fifteen years when I had a burn-out episode and had to take a period of long service leave. My symptoms were more mental than physical – exhaustion, lack of motivation, cynicism, irritability, anxiety, weepiness, depression. And all of it with a really appalling side of negative-self-talk, which has been a problem for me since I was a kid (I still reproach myself brutally for tiny things which happened literally decades ago). So for me it’s less about control and more about managing my inner self-critic.

    I have to say that after I recovered from my earlier burn out episode I was rather recidivist – I just loaded myself up again, with too many commitments, yet more academic ‘success’ and responsibility, and I have found that the burn out is recurrent… although on a lesser scale. The challenge i think is to make permanent changes which prioritize your health, and not fall back into the same patterns – ‘I feel good and rejuvenated and exuberant so I’m going to plunge back in and say yes to everything and it will be great!’

    The timing of your post is so funny (although maybe not surprising – every academic I know is hanging on by their finger nails right now, and to my eye it gets worse every year) because just yesterday I was sitting on a plane, doing the self-compassion exercises my psychologist has recommended, thinking about why I would be so much more brutal and unforgiving and mean to myself than I would ever dream of being to anyone else. In fact, if I did it to anyone else it would be regarded as abuse – coercive and cruel. For me there is much work still to be done.

    In the meantime I send you strength and solidarity and thank you for your candour and openness about these tricksy issues…

  12. Thank you Thesis Whisperer!

    This topic is close to my heart and is ever present as I walk through, or muddle through at times, this PhD journey.

    And I wholeheartedly agree, that it is indeed a spectrum disorder, one which would do well to have some PhD hours or other research invested in to understand how it manifests and what the consequences are for PhDs!

    One way I remind myself to work through the perfectionistic traits is to recall some wise words from a mentor, shared several years ago – ‘perfection’ is the enemy of ‘good.’ This is a saying that is not unique to this mentor, but as he is the person who shared it, I will attribute it to him until I find another source!

    I was also referred to this excellent source of information – for the perfectionist in all of us! https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Perfectionism The workbook has nine modules and is a useful tool to help understand what makes us perfectionists tick and how to manage it.

    Thanks again for raising this important issue, and for being so honest with your experience. It is very much appreciated.

    Enjoy the rest of your day!

    Kindest regards, Nicole

    Nicole Garofano PhD Candidate School of Earth & Environmental Sciences (SEES) University of Queensland St Lucia, QLD, 4072, Australia E: n.garofano@uq.edu.au

  13. Hi Inger,

    Thanks for sharing one more ‘reality show’ post (my favourite) and many congratulations for reaching 100k followers 😊 It is an amazing number, but you deserve even more because you are helping them all!

    I am aware of my perfectionism and actually said it aloud to anyone who tries to convince me to take off my tie! LOL

    ‘Attention to detail’ tends to pay off, as long as it does not block you (it only slows you down)…

    Have a wonderful Christmas Season!

    Ricardo Morais

    Design and defend your PhD with the Idea Puzzle® software

    De: The Thesis Whisperer Enviada: 4 de dezembro de 2018 17:02 Para: ricardo.morais@ideapuzzle.com Assunto: [New post] Perfectionism is a spectrum disorder

    Thesis Whisperer posted: “Last year I had a health crisis, brought on by many years of just working too many hours. After about 15 years of regularly doing 50 or 60 hour weeks something inside me just… snapped. It started with unexpected bouts of tears at work, then rapidly p”

  14. Interesting post Inge. Perfectionism and architecture go hand in hand traditionally but that is changing as priorities change towards reduced carbon footprint over aesthetics .
    Marie Forleo and Brene Brown both shed light on what drives perfectionism, how it manifests and strategies to combat.

    #progressoverperfection #donenotperfect

  15. What a really great article. Shortly after graduate school – my high achievement standard really started to get in the way of producing at my job – I was no longer in the “science takes time” world of academia and really had to learn to change my thoughts about “always giving it my best”.
    Learning to prioritize, letting go earlier (i.e. not reading everything 4 or 5 times before handing over to team members), etc.
    It was a real eye opener and a lesson I’ve brought to my academic coaching work.

    I also read the book: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz, which really helped me put certain things into perspective and let go of the fear and embarrassment of being wrong – which really helped cut down the stress and rumination I was feeling.

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