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 everythingand 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