I hate to fail.
My failure avoidance leads to a tendency for overwork. I drive myself harder than any manager will, mostly out of fear of failure rather than love for the work. My feelings of insecurity make me a good employee and student, but they also put me at risk for burn out and exhaustion.
If so, read on because I think we really need to talk about what it’s like to be a failure avoider during a global pandemic.
In the past, I’ve hesitated to call myself a perfectionist. I can be remarkably messy. I have trouble with detail. I can say ‘good enough’ and hand things in. My house is very neat (but largely because Mr Thesiswhisperer has higher hygiene standards than me). And yet, whenever I take a psych test for perfectionism?
Off. The. Charts.
Apparently, you can be as sloppy as fuck and a perfectionist at the same time. I find this confusing, so I prefer to think about what is going on with me as perfectionism-failure avoidance.
I have learned that this perfectionistic-failure avoidance tendency of mine is not about neatness. I want – no. I need my work to be seen as good and worthwhile by others. Feeling like I have failed in this aim can provoke an intense, almost visceral sense of shame and a healthy dose of fear. I avoid this feeling as much as possible by working until I get it ‘right’.
The problem is, I never, ever feel I have it ‘right’.
This variant of perfectionism is not what they call ‘maladaptive’, but nor is it healthy. While I don’t beat myself up for missing occasional deadlines, I fear being ‘found out’ as a failure until people tell me what I have done is good. Only then do I feel a momentary, fleeting sense of relief – but it doesn’t last long before I am back into the perfectionistic cycle again on a new project.
I don’t take much pleasure in my achievements either. I must, at some level, crave the praise that comes with success, or I wouldn’t work so hard. But when people actually praise me, I get quite uncomfortable. I wince inside when people call me a ‘super-star’ and list my achievements before I give a public talk. I feel like the person they are describing is not me, but I have to be here to accept the praise on her behalf because she does sound pretty awesome.
I suspect academia is the perfect petri dish for this perfectionist-failure avoidance tendency of mine to grow and metastasize because I meet people like myself ALL THE TIME.
I see failure-avoidant PhD students and working researchers in my writing workshops and bootcamps. Many of them are super anxious and looking for ‘rules’ that they can follow to get it ‘right’ (sadly, there are not many I can offer). These people are often exhausted and burned out. When you tell these high-achievers they are doing fantastic work, and their project is close to being done, they immediately tell you how it’s not good enough. They work extremely hard – probably too many hours – but are extremely reluctant to pull back. They tend to react with fear and trepidation when you suggest they are over-doing it a bit. They never seem satisfied with their achievements and, before a project is even done, will take on another, even harder one.
This pattern of behaviour is often called ‘the imposter syndrome’. Hugh Kearns, a famous educator in PhD circles, has written a lot of good stuff about it. While I respect Hugh’s work, I don’t like to use the term ‘imposter syndrome’. As far as I know, it’s not been independently validated as an actual psychological condition, so it’s problematic to give it that label. As my ‘blog sister’ Pat Thomson points out, by calling this behaviour a ‘syndrome’, we pathologise a rational reaction to being in a hierarchical, competitive place like a university, surrounded by high achievers.
To understand what is going on here I think we need to delve deeper into the literature on perfectionism. According to psychologists Hewitt and Flett, there are three kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed. All perfectionists will be a little of each type, but consider this list of questionnaire items for socially-prescribed perfectionists, which I have adapted from their 45 item multi-dimensional perfectionism scale:
- People around me expect me to succeed
- If my work is less than excellent, it will be seen by others around me as poor
- The better I do, the better I am expected to do
- Success on this project will mean I have to work harder on the next one to meet people’s expectations
If you are nodding at this list, I witness you.
It’s easier to understand socially prescribed perfectionism by thinking about it as a physical affliction. I’ve been told by doctors that I also have a high tolerance for physical pain – which can be dangerous because I don’t listen to danger signals from my body. I will walk 15 km on a ‘sore ankle’ around Tokyo and end up on crutches for a month. Similarly, socially prescribed perfectionism distorts your internal perceptions of quality. You worry what other people think so much that you set the bar extremely high for your own success. Over time, your sense of what ‘failure’ means is all out of whack. Basically, your ‘failure’ is other people’s ‘pretty damn ok’.
If you’re anything like me, the praise you get from being an over-achiever can trigger an internal need for more praise. But getting more praise doesn’t necessarily help you feel like you can stop and rest. Here’s the thing: a person who seeks praise and recognition, but then cannot accept or enjoy it when it is offered, probably doesn’t like themselves very much.
The truth of that stings a little.
I say that academia is a petri-dish because, in our industry, achieving exceptional quality cannot be separated from professional success. To be an academic, you must be striving for perfection. If your work is shoddy and incomplete (or even just boring) you will be considered a poor academic, not just an average one. In fact – being an ‘average’ academic is often positioned as a form of failure when academics gossip about each other. As you become more successful, people treat you like a rising star and expect more of the same. Needless to say, if you are a member of a minority group in the academy you will feel this pressure to succeed more acutely. There’s plenty of evidence that women and people of colour are judged more harshly and given less chances to fail. Failure avoidance for many of us is not pathological: it’s sensible, even essential.
I like to think about Perfectionism as an academic occupational hazard. Along with short-sightedness from reading a lot.
To survive in academia, you will, to some extent, have internalised the kind of attitudes in my list above. If you don’t, you probably won’t last in the profession – and that’s exactly the problem. Even if you started out in your academic career without perfectionist tendencies, you will need to develop some degree of perfectionism as you go on. This tendency to have high standards for your work is good for your career, no doubt, but here’s the rub: it’s really bad for your health. One of the reasons I believe I have ended up on anti-anxiety medication is this workplace induced perfectionism.
We need to be alert to the monster of perfectionism at all times, but especially during the Covid19 pandemic.
So much of what is happening in the world right now is far, far outside our zone of control. It will be literally impossible to live up to your own standards in at least some area of your life at the moment. Researchers are trapped in countries that are far away from their fieldwork sites and labs. Others will be in shitty situations around employment, personal finances or relationships, which will make it hard to concentrate on work. Some are literally locked inside their houses. Postdocs and PhD students all over are losing work – and hope for the future. What is happening to higher education in my country, Australia, is a shit show inside a dumpster fire. It’s hard enough to deal with the real existential angst without imposing these distorted ideas of quality on yourself.
We need to recognise that these imposter feelings are not a ‘syndrome’ because they cannot be cured, only managed. My best advice is to recognise the thinking pattern, pretend for argument’s sake that it is ‘imposter syndrome’ and give it a name.
I call my imposter syndrome Beryl.
She’s my nagging great aunt, sitting on the edge of a sofa with a teacup saying “Oh no, no, no Inger. Do you really think you should do that? What will people think of you?’.
Beryl keeps me sharp. It pays to listen to her, but critically. Sometimes she’s warning me about a real problem. In that case, I need to listen up and do something about it. Other times she’s just being an uptight, prissy old bitch and can be safely ignored. Don’t let Beryl rule your life, ok?
I miss talking with you in the comments! I have turned them back on for this one. I’m interested to hear about how you are coping with the pandemic and what steps you have taken to protect your mental health.
In our most recent ‘On the Reg’ podcast, Jason Downs and I have an extended rant about the conditions in academia that lead to over work.
The 2020 Covid Diaries
Related posts on The Thesis Whisperer
You can find our podcast webpage here or search ‘on the reg’ in any good podcast directory.
Links to other articles and resources
Self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism: Differential relationships with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and test anxiety, Personality and individual differences, 47(5), p. 423 – 438.
Gender, Work, Stress and Health – Science Magazine article with some good self care tips.
Coping during COVID tip sheet by Shari Walsh
How to touch your face less (printable tip sheet from The Oatmeal).