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Moving Past Perfectionism Into Wholeness

In this newsletter, we want to continue building on ways to cope with perfectionism by adding a few more ideas and strategies in support of your health and wellness as graduate students. Consider trying these out, and see what might work for you:

Feeling anxious. Often, perfectionism goes hand in hand with feeling anxious. For example, you may be pre-occupied with negative thoughts such as “I will never be good enough.” This is especially prevalent in academia where it can appear as though everyone else has gotten it all figured out. To manage this, try re-focusing your anxious thoughts and instead say to yourself, “I am working on this project one task at a time, and that is good enough.” Or “I don’t always have to be on top of things,” or even “My overall worth as a person is not defined by being an ‘excellent student’.” We know this is easier said than done, and yet just like with any life-long wellness strategy, it will take consistent, regular practice and setting yourself up with a wellness accountability partner or two.

Fearing failure. Ever spend too much time over-thinking and re-writing the same paragraph without going any further on a paper draft? Us too. Sometimes it’s fear of failure that keeps us stuck in a perfectionistic rut. Just like with any project, a way to move past getting stuck on writing is to set realistic and manageable goals for yourself. For example, rather than spending too much time on a single paragraph, try non-stop free writing for 15 minutes. While you are free writing, notice any perfectionistic feelings or thoughts but resist responding to or internalizing them. Stay engaged in your 15 minutes of writing, then take a five minute break. Then do another 15 minute round of writing; afterwards, you might have at least two paragraphs (and one or two ideas) to build your overall draft from. Doing manageable rounds of writing can help you see that you are making progress.

Resisting perfection. The stakes feel so high in grad school, especially when you feel like you are somehow “not smart enough”; when you are the first in your family to go to college let alone grad school; or when you don’t feel like you belong on campus. In these situations, you may feel the pressure to constantly prove yourself. Not only is this unrealistic and will impact your health in the long run: it is so far from the truth. While it’s important to be open to feedback from advisors and mentors in grad school so you can grow on intellectual and professional levels, it’s also important to let go of the need to be perfect for anyone. Mental health professional Ilene S. Cohen suggests several steps for letting go of perfection:

– Change your mindset. Resist the idea that you need to work hard in the hopes of gaining a person’s approval.
– Build self-reliance. Be open to failure and learn from trial and error.
– Learn to let go. Practice letting go of negative ideas you have about yourself.
– Make your own decisions. Trust in yourself to know what decisions are best for you.

Finally, working on undoing perfectionism also involves being in community. Reach out to trusted peers, loved ones and friends outside of academia, mentors and mental health professionals who can support your growth as a graduate student and your wellness as a whole person. Also, when you have the space and capacity to be supportive to your grad student peers, consider reaching out to let them know.


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