I have had some sleepless nights as my brain continues to whir about the decisions I have already made, outputs for my Final Major Project and particularly alternative installation plans and the layout of my e-book. As always my ability to grasp new applications and software relevant to the delivery of my Final Major Project continue to cause anxiety even though by most people’s standards I might be considered pretty good.
This led my husband to give me an article from New Scientist to read entitled When the best is not enough: An epidemic of perfectionism is sweeping across the world that has alarming implications for our mental health, finds Helen Thomson.
The image of the swan gliding across the water with feet paddling furiously underneath applies to me.
I have learnt over the years to keep my feelings and emotions under wraps and in my working life never to reveal them. I remember many occasions in high stress, large committee situations where I was expected to field many difficult and convoluted questions in a very public forum. I also remember a colleague of mine, following one of these occasions, congratulating me on my performance and the way I had not let my true feelings show, even given the futility and motivations for the questioning and challenges. I had stuck to my guns but I remember thinking I might have looked formidable but I was crying inside. And that was the way I managed with very senior, and very clever academics in universities for thirty five years.
The article in New Scientist reflects on some case studies of perfectionism. One of them is a Master’s student from Florida State University, Jonathan Stern. I related very much to his view:
“On the outside you’re winning, but you’re giving yourself the hardest time inside. I always felt I could do better.” (Stern in Thomson, 2019:36).
There is even a Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale developed over thirty years ago with 45 statements – participants are asked to rank to what extent they agree with statements such as “I strive to be the best at everything I do.” The Scale then categorises individuals between three different kinds of perfectionism:
“Self-oriented” perfectionists – setting high goals in their work and relationships
“Other-oriented” perfectionists – high expectations of others and
“Socially-prescribed” perfectionists – feel pressure and approval from others to be perfect.
From my perspective I think I have tendencies to all three of these but mostly in terms of “self-oriented”perfectionism. I continuously give myself a hard time, always know I could do so much better and compare myself with others to legitimise that feeling. Consequently, my self-esteem takes a continual battering. I find it difficult to accept compliments and praise and often question the motivation of the person giving it! The better I do the higher my expectations get.
Not surprisingly, the article refers to the likely health problems of being a perfectionist but its also questions the possible benefits of maintaining exacting standards. It is the case the perfectionists often achieve academically and in their careers however this success can come at significant personal cost. So where is this leading?
The article concludes by claiming that good is good enough and that we should praise our efforts rather than our outcomes. This makes sense because personally once one task has been achieved successfully I just move onto the next one! The salutary final piece of advice is:
“If you want to be happy and healthy for 80-plus years then you have to focus on what you gained from an experience, rather than what grade you achieved.”
Important advice as we close in on our Final Major Project!!
Thomson, Helen. 2019. When the Best is not enough.” in New Scientist, 17 August 2019.