Letting Go of Perfectionism During a Pandemic

This past March, I left my research stay in the Netherlands to return to Canada due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I entered two weeks of self-isolation, and in that time, I wrote out a long list of goals – in writing this list, I told myself that I would emerge from isolation and months of lockdown like an academic version of Lara Croft. I would impress everyone with a boatload of submitted papers, a postdoc offer, shinier and bouncier hair, a svelte frame, and a solution for world peace… you get the gist. Welcome to the inner workings of a perfectionist. 

A perfectionist is not simply a person who works hard – a perfectionist is distinguished by their “single-minded need to correct their own imperfections.” Perfectionism can be distinguished as either adaptive, whereby set standards are realistic and failure to achieve goals can be accepted and learned from, and maladaptive, where standards are unrealistic and failure is not seen as a reasonable outcome. 

Research suggests that maladaptive perfectionism among young adults is on the rise, and that it can vary by gender and race. For example, some studies report that maladaptive perfectionism is more common in Black females, potentially due to a perceived need to overcorrect performance as a result of perceived societal standing. Maladaptive perfectionism has hugely negative consequences on mental health, and has been linked to higher risk of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. In all, perfectionism does discriminate, and it can have massive impacts on our wellbeing.

As a biracial woman, I am confronted with my minority status daily as I navigate through the predominantly white space that is academia. I often feel like I am living under a microscope, and that my actions are under close scrutiny – am I meant to be here, or am I filling some unspoken diversity quota in my department? Maybe if I am perfect, I will no longer be met with surprise if I write a good paper, or if I speak well in front of an audience. Maybe if I am perfect, I will finally convince everyone that I deserve my place. 

Maybe if I am perfect, I will no longer be met with surprise if I write a good paper, or if I speak well in front of an audience.

Academia rewards perfection through its reward of high achievement – the trajectory of an academic career often depends on metrics including funding dollars, publications, and citations. Broadly, our society is also shaped by idealized, and often white, notions of image and status that are meant to dictate our value. Everywhere we turn, we are confronted with an extraordinary pressure to compete, succeed, and conform to standards that are, by design, almost impossible to reach. 

For me, perfectionism takes on the maladaptive form. It has gripped me for as long as I have been aware that I don’t look like most of my peers. Examples of maladaptive perfectionism abound in my life – it was present as I burst into tears and ran off the stage when I spelled a word wrong at my sixth grade spelling bee. It loomed as I would stand on my bathroom scale and admonish myself for not being any closer to my goal weight. It was in my mirror, staring back at me as I tried to wrangle my natural hair into submission with a straightener. I remember once, in my first year of university, that I got so upset with myself during a midterm that I erased all of my answers and handed in a mostly blank exam. I thought it would be less embarrassing for the professor to mark a blank test than a test with answers that could be wrong. 

Last year, I wrote about dealing with depression and imposter syndrome. I have come to realize that my perfectionism is intrinsically tied with feeling like I am an imposter… with feeling like I don’t belong in academia by virtue of how I look and how I was raised. When I first realized that I needed help in dealing with these complex feelings last summer, I sought out therapy, and my perfectionism isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. However, in times of uncertainty and stress, I find myself gravitating towards it again. There is something strangely comforting about trying to achieve the impossible – it allows you to take your mind off of what you can’t control. I knew I couldn’t do anything to control the far-reaching consequences of a global pandemic, but I could control how much work I did, and what I made my body do.

It was not long before I realized that I was reverting to a series of destructive thoughts and behaviors that I thought were behind me. As I tried to aim for perfection, I found myself starting to physically and mentally deteriorate. I was tired and hungry all the time. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. I ignored pain signals as I would exercise, and it led to an injury. I voiced my concerns to those closest to me, and they urged me to return to therapy and to ditch the list of “isolation goals” that I had outlined. I listened – I booked a virtual appointment with my therapist, and I felt an immense satisfaction in tearing up that list of impossible goals I had outlined for myself. My mood started to shift, and I began to feel a little less burdened by perfectionism and its deceptively heavy weight.

It has taken me a long time to learn that there is no winning in trying to achieve the unattainable. I also know that it will be hard to rid myself of these tendencies completely, given the pressures associated with my choice of career. Perfectionism is incredibly common in the academic world – a world rife with competition and impossibly high standards. 

Perfectionism is incredibly common in the academic world…. It is even more common for those of us who came into academia through unconventional paths.

It is even more common for those of us who came into academia through unconventional paths, or who don’t fit the usual academic stereotype – the white cis male in the tweed, elbow-patched blazer. For those of us who go against type, we are facing even more pressure to prove our worth, as we navigate both a global pandemic and a time of unprecedented changes to our society and the systems that govern, treat, educate, and employ us. This pressure can cost us our mental health and wellbeing.

 But now is not the time to succumb to this pressure – to succumb to extreme productivity or upward comparisons. Now is not the time to lament our failures and to try and correct our perceived imperfections. As we go through this time of collective stress and grief, I encourage you to seek help if you need it – whether it’s through therapy or through reaching out to your loved ones. If you have set unrealistic goals for yourself, maybe it’s time to change them – move the goalposts in a way that makes those goals attainable, and set yourself up for the win. If there’s one thing that it is time for right now… it’s time to take care of ourselves and those around us. It’s time to let go of perfection.

Zahra Clayborne
Zahra Clayborne

Zahra Clayborne is a PhD candidate in Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, where her research focuses on identifying modifiable pre- and post-natal factors that influence child and adolescent mental health. She is passionate about science communication, and promoting positive mental health and psychosocial wellbeing for other graduate students. You can find her on Twitter @zclayborne.

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