Last Friday I submitted my doctoral thesis. I gave everything I had to my thesis and, after three years and three months of hard work, the moment of holding that hard-copy was one of the most rewarding I have felt to date.
— Lucy Atkins (@LucyJCA) January 19, 2018
More important was the fact that I submitted a thesis that I knew still had some imperfections – nothing that can’t be fixed following my viva. For me, the submission was about being emotionally and psychologically ready to move on, even if the work was not strictly perfect. This is very important for two reasons:
1 My personal battle with perfectionism
Over the first year of my PhD journey, I struggled significantly with drafting my literature review and found that my continual self-perceived ‘failure’ led to a deep self-hatred. This in turn resulted in increased anxiety and with it the occasional bout of depression. I was advised to speak to a doctor and was eventually diagnosed with clinical perfectionism.
‘Clinical perfectionists constantly strive for ambitious goals and judge their self-worth on the achievement of these goals. Not meeting these goals, whether realistic or not, is met with a barrage of self-criticism and loathing.’ (Wade 2016)
Essentially, I would stop at nothing to reach the high standards that I set for myself, regardless of the personal cost. Needless to say my journey over the following years of the PhD was a hard one, but with the help and support of my supervisors I slowly began to accept that perfection was not the ultimate aim of my work. That it was not worth my own health and sanity to continue to strive for unattainable standards.
This is still a journey I am taking and it is likely to be one I work on for many years to come. The submission of an imperfect thesis, however, was a big step for me personally. To be comfortable with submitting something that I know has flaws, however minor, is significant progress. In some ways, I think I may be more proud of that than the thesis itself.
2 The rise of perfectionism in Higher Education
Recent research (Curran and Hill 2017) has identified a rise in perfectionism of University students over the last 27 years. The report focused upon three main types of perfectionism:
- self-oriented, or an irrational desire to be perfect;
- socially prescribed, or perceiving excessive expectations from others; and
- other-oriented, or placing unrealistic standards on others.
The paper links these changes to the emergence of neoliberalism and an increasing trend towards meritocracy. This documented rise in perfectionism is also important in light of the acknowledged increase in students suffering from anxiety and depression at University (which often come hand-in-hand with perfectionism) and student suicide at a record level (Marsh 2017, Weale 2018).
These reports and studies highlight the importance of quality supervision, and support for supervisors in dealing with student mental health issues. Based on his research, Curran (2018) has shared his own thoughts on how to support perfectionist students. These focus on supporting students to understand that failure is not the end of the world, there are better things to aim for than perfection and that it is important to keep moving forward. Having reflected on my own journey, I would like to share how my supervisors helped me to begin to overcome my perfectionism:
Creating a safe space for constructive feedback
I have been fortunate to work with three supervisors with whom I have a good working relationship. One of the core reasons for this is that I have felt confident from the beginning that my well-being, over and above my academic achievement, is their main priority. I was regularly encouraged to take breaks, rest and practice self-care. Their explicit concern for my well-being created an atmosphere in which I always felt safe to be open and honest about my struggles.
It also created a safe space in which to discuss my work. I was able to take constructive feedback on how to improve my work, without feeling like a failure.
Helping me to challenge my self-derisive behaviour
I have personally found that, with both my perfectionism and my more generalised anxiety, when my worries and concerns are challenged, and spoken aloud, I can also hear how ridiculous they sound. Whilst boxed up inside my head, they are undeniable and terrifying, but bring them out into the real world and I am able to see them for what they are.
My supervisors challenged my use of self-derogatory language and helped me to confront my own unrealistic standards. By bringing those expectations out into the open, we were able to dissect them together and identify how they were unattainable. We then worked together to replace those goals with healthier, more realistic ones.