At the end of last January, I opened my email expecting to see the typical college spam emails that were always there. When I did, I saw one from Westminster that piqued my interest. For context, about two months prior I had submitted an essay to the 6th Annual Essay Contest hosted by Westminster’s Honors College and was awaiting the results. When I opened the email, I saw that I had been awarded the first-place prize.
I was overjoyed in the moment and immediately went to celebrate with my family. But after a few weeks, during which I quietly tucked away the money I had won in my savings account, published the essay in the Salt Lake Tribune, and felt the excitement of first place start to wear off, I got buried in the workload of the infamous vintage ad project, and all the confidence I had gained from winning first place began to dissolve. When I failed to get above an A- on my project, I started to doubt whether I was deserving of that award.
Winning the contest set a whole new standard for me. My peers started to look to me for advice, thinking I was some amazing writer, but when I looked around in my AP Lang class I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be there. I became paralyzed whenever I started an essay, and I had trouble putting my fingertips to the keyboard to type just one word. If I was going to fail, what was the point in even trying?
This was the mantra going through my head all of junior year as I struggled in my classes more than I was used to. It later expanded to things like my social life and sports, where I lost all desire to try new things and push myself because I felt like I was doomed to fail. I felt stuck and hopeless, and at the time I blamed it on burnout (which is partially true), but why did I feel so pessimistic about my work even after having 3 months of summer vacation to recover from my chaotic junior year? After listening to an episode of a psychology podcast Hidden Brain, I found my answer: perfectionism.
Perfectionism is nothing new to Rowland Hall students. It’s a well known fact that we hold ourselves to crazy high standards and expect to meet them every time. This may seem like a good idea at first, ensuring high quality of work, but according to psychologist Thomas Curran, those expectations of ourselves may be doing more harm than good.
First off, what makes someone a perfectionist and what behaviors do they exhibit? According to Psychology Today, some of the tell-tale behaviors are: unrealistically high expectations they set for themselves and others, being overly critical of mistakes, and a paralyzing fear of failure. Perfectionists often procrastinate, and when they are complimented or celebrated, they downplay it or don’t acknowledge it. Some of these traits are clearly destructive, while others may not be as obvious. So how do these traits culminate and hurt overall productivity?
Curran mentions a phenomenon called “diminishing productivity return,” which explains that although perfectionists work hard, their efforts tend to worsen the overall quality of their work. Perfectionists work too hard to the point where their habits are unsustainable and they become burned out. In other words, perfectionists work harder, not smarter, and their work and mental wellbeing suffer because of it. Additionally, because of many perfectionists’ fear of failure, many of them adopt a black-and-white mentality that tells them that the embarrassment of failing is worse than not trying at all. Combine that with the burnout and you find many people end up procrastinating or giving up on their goals entirely.
What winning the essay contest did for me was reinforce unrealistic expectations of my writing. I spent hours getting stuck on writing the perfect thesis or topic sentence over and over again and never looked at my essays holistically. That’s when I found myself subscribing to the mindset that “If my writing isn't worthy of first place then it isn’t worth wasting the time and effort on it if I am going to fail either way,” culminating in sub-par essays (according to my unrealistic expectations) and further cementing my perfectionist tendencies. Although if I had done better, Curran explains that it would still reinforce my perfectionistic behavior because the more success perfectionists experience, the more pressure they put on themselves to perform well in every situation.
So how do you escape from the cycle of perfectionism? One method Curran mentions is to make your focus the quality of the work and detach your own self worth or self esteem from the arbitrary value of the work. Instead of making ourselves and our worth the focus, make the quality of the work the focus so you can separate criticism of the work from your identity. Another method for writing specifically is to “write out all the bad” and wait to revise. Remember that a first draft is not the final product and don’t get caught up in making every detail perfect while you write.
It’s hard to break these perfectionist habits, but employing these techniques has really helped me not only get things done but also feel better about myself in general. Perfection is unattainable, and it has greatly benefitted me to focus on myself and my well being rather than trying to do the impossible with my work. If you struggle with perfectionism too, I highly suggest listening to the podcast, linked here.