Let’s face it-a lot of us in graduate school are perfectionists. I could go a step farther and argue a lot of us made it into graduate school in part because of our perfectionism. Graduate school is exactly the kind of environment where perfectionism thrives. There’s a constant striving to tackle our significant workloads without error and folly. There’s the pressure to publish well and often. There’s the pressure to do something that’s never been done before. We’ve got lots of people counting on us-students, colleagues, professors-and of course, those same people are constantly watching us and will know when we’ve screwed up. Comparing ourselves to others is, like biting nails, a bad and nervous habit that we could quit if we only could relax a little.
For some, perfectionism is motivation, speeding them onward through their tasks. For others-like me, I admit-perfectionism is a bully, a roadblock, a kind of paralysis. I’m struggling with it now, as I write this post, willing myself to keep my fingers tapping on the keys, willing myself not to reach up to the backspace key and delete everything I’ve just written, willing myself to stay seated for now, willing myself not to get up from my desk with a faint resolve to work on this later, when I have better ideas.
In a way, I could point to my background in creative writing for my perfectionism and all the poor work habits that have come with it. Before I moved to rhetoric and composition, I spent much of my high school and undergraduate years, as well as four years of graduate school, studying poetry. Day and night were devoted to pouring over short lines and contemplating the best ways to make expressions as pithy and brief as possible. I became highly skilled in attacking tiny pieces of text, exhaustively searching them for flaws, writing and rewriting and rewriting the lines. I was terrified of writing a bad poem, and my terror grew unmanageable. I was only able to produce the poems I absolutely needed for class. Eventually, the poems stopped altogether.
I carried this perfectionism-disguised as writer’s block-with me to my doctoral program. I managed to produce decent enough writing for my courses, but it was agonizing. Trying to sound eloquent, original, and grad-school smart in a brand-new discipline resulted in panic attacks in my office in the middle of the day. I remember the day I finally went to the psychiatrist-I was sitting in my bedroom at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning, on the phone with my mother, crying uncontrollably because I was too agoraphobic to walk into the kitchen to get cereal.
Medication and therapy helped me become functional again, but perfectionism continued to reign. When the time came for my comprehensive exams, I still wasn’t in any shape to write volumes of academic prose in a timed environment. So I delayed. And delayed. And delayed. I sunk into a deep depression. When it became clear I couldn’t delay any more, and I finally surrendered myself to the first part of the exam process. I wrote, but as I wrote, a broken tape droned on in my head: This is the worst thing you’ve ever written, you are a hack, everyone will know that you are an impostor, prepare to be thrown out of the program. I was so worked up that I began to hallucinate bugs were crawling in my hair, and that a killer was following my car as I drove around aimlessly at four a.m. During the second part of my exam, I felt like I was trapped in some kind of hermetically-sealed chamber of suffering, unable to carry on normal conversations with anyone, unable to enjoy anything at all. Thinking of my exam made me feel sick; sitting down to work on it for even fifteen minutes required Herculean effort. I felt as though I wasn’t really even breathing. I was dead on my feet.
The comprehensive exam process in my program takes approximately six to eight months. Mine took two and a half years. And yet, I passed my exams with distinction. My writing earned effervescent praise from my professors. I felt elated but dazed, drained, and broken. Was it worth it? I seriously considered leaving academia to seek out a different space, one that didn’t encourage my perfectionism. But I realized just that-that it was my perfectionism, my problem, and that it would follow me no matter where I went.
I wish I had some wiser things to say about perfectionism. I wish I had some “hacky” tips that I could pass on to readers that could make the bad parts of perfectionism disappear like a bad dream. The truth is, I may never be able to shake the kind of pathological perfectionism that has gripped me over the course of my graduate school career. For me, perfectionism is ultimately a question of how much I love what I do versus how much I’m willing to suffer for it. And, I’ve learned, it’s a question of how much I care about my own well-being versus how much I’m willing to change in order to survive.
Right now I’m approaching the fabled dissertation, my biggest-yet hurdle to getting the PhD, and also my last. I am well-aware that this could break me for good. But I’m learning, very slowly, that I’m at my best when I’m excited about what I’m doing, when I have energy, when I’m not suffering for some vaguely-defined understanding of what it means to be perfect in all of these new endeavors. I’m learning that perfection isn’t necessary. I’m learning that being my best is probably good enough, and good enough is worth striving for.
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