The Perfectionism Plague
By Evgeniya Lubennikova, English language instructor, The School of Foreign languages, HSE University. She copleted the School of Trainers at the Academic Writing Center. Evgeniya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I heard my students speak English for the first time, I immediately knew that I had to show them off. Their native-like English and assertiveness made it crystal clear that I should organise a Pecha Kucha event at our university and it should be a blast with a star-studded cast.
A few words about what Pecha Kucha is. It is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to images. Having originated in Tokyo in 2003, Pecha Kucha has become a global movement promoting the art of concise and creative presentations.
During the application frenzy, which followed the event announcement, I kept waiting for my best students’ creative ideas, but, to my surprise, I never got any! As the deadline was looming, I decided to simply ask them why. The answers varied from “I don’t have much to say” to “I’m so inundated with my studies that I won’t be able to prepare well enough”.
I was totally taken aback by their responses, but, as I’d set this ball rolling, there was no turning back. I went on with what I had — a couple of dozens of applications from persevering, gritty, creative but not so advanced students, whose texts needed an entire makeover from my part. The whirlwind of preparation and rehearsing totally enthralled me, resulting in the most awe-inspiring Pecha Kucha night ever. There were a couple of moments that I felt I was on the verge of tears as the presenters were so sincere, so passionate, so convincing.
At the back of my mind, however, I couldn’t help comparing the “perfect” group to the “gritty” one. How was it possible that those students who seemed to be perfectly cut out for an event like that refused to participate and those who needed to put in a great deal of effort were so willing? And the answer was right there in front of me: the perfect ones suffered from perfectionism — a self-fulfilling prophecy indeed!
While many people believe that perfectionism means ambition, commitment, hard work and high standards, recent research on the subject says otherwise. The thing is that perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards. Perfectionists are terrified of making mistakes and so threatened by the success of others that they are paralysed by fear, shame, and self-hatred for not being good enough.
The problem has been on the rise over the last 40 years. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s recent meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, found significant increases among more recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada.
The urge to be perfect stems from a lot of factors that thrive in the modern world, for example, exposure to social media, the need to compete at school, the watchful eye of increasingly demanding parents, the list goes on. As a result, youngsters show lack of interest in life, give up easily, and develop mental health issues.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat perfectionistic behaviour. In his book “How to be an Imperfectionist” (2015), Stephen Guise calls perfectionism a naturally limiting mindset and suggests practicing self-acceptance, where “mistakes are allowed and self-judgement is minimal”.
There are numerous Ted talks given by inspirational perfectionists (check out the list below) that give their tips on how they are coping with the disorder, through, for example, viewing mistakes as proof that they are trying and getting inspired and encouraged by others who are doing great things in this world.
Here is a list of some invaluable advice that perfectionism researchers and experts give:
- Care less about doing it right. Care more about doing it at all.
- Focus on success in the future rather than failure in the past.
- Care less about what other people think. Care more about who you want to be and what you want to do.
- Focus on learning from the best rather than competing with someone who seems to be more successful than you.
As university professors we are privileged to be role models and performance coaches, if you like, for our students. In the light of the recent research into the rapid rise of perfectionism, we should try to help students overcome their fears by offering them tips and strategies of self-acceptance and perfectionism avoidance, by promoting risk-taking, initiative, and active involvement in learning.
More than a year has passed since the Pecha Kucha night and I thank my perfectionistic students for refusing to participate and motivating me to research and start working on my own perfectionism. And I am grateful to those gritty ones who have shown me that doing things imperfectly is so much more rewarding than not doing them at all.
Recommended books, articles and TED talks on the topic of Perfectionism
- “The perfectionism detox”, By Petra Kolber, TEDxSyracuse University.
- “Perfectionism holds us back. Here’s why”, by Charly Haversat, TED at State Street Boston.
- “Perfectionism — the battle of never ending feeling quite good enough”, by Julia LeGallo, TEDxTruro.
- “The Gifts of Imperfection”, by Brene Brown, Random House, 2020.
- “How to be an Imperfectionst” by Stephen Guise, Selective Entertainment LLC, 2015
- “The dangerous downsides of perfectionism”, by Amanda Ruggeri, BBC future, 2018.
- “The Problem With Being Perfect”, Olga Kazan, the Atlantic, 2018.