Learning to Let Go: The Perfectionist’s Struggle

by Laura Thorne
UBC Okanagan Library

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.
– Dr. Harriet Braiker

Last week, I attended C-EBLIP’s third annual Fall Symposium. There were so many great presentations, but there were two in particular that I kept thinking about in the days following – Angie Gerrard’s Changing Your Research Plan En-Route and The Elephant in the Room: Imposter Syndrome and Librarian Researchers by Jaclyn McLean. Both presentations tackled often-encountered, but rarely discussed topics that come up when conducting research – our emotions and personalities. Gerrard discussed the emotional challenge associated with research not going according to plan and the need for professional vulnerability, while McLean discussed imposter syndrome and feeling like you’re not good enough, even when you’ve accomplished so much. They led me to think about a related issue that I’ve struggled with in my career and while doing research – perfectionism.

Like many librarians I know, I am a perfectionist. Perfectionism can be an excellent trait. It can lead to high quality work and can motivate me to always strive to do my best. But it can also be challenging. While I wouldn’t diagnose myself with atelophobia, at times my perfectionism has been paralyzing and has prevented me from taking risks, trying new things, or even completing what I’ve started. There are drawbacks to thinking everything you do needs to be perfect or the best.

Studies show that perfectionism is rampant in academia (Charbonneau, 2011;
Dunn, Whelton & Sharpe, 2006; Sherry, Hewitt, Sherry, Flett & Graham, 2010; Rockquemore, 2012; Shives, 2014) and is something many of our students also struggle with while at university (Çapan, 2010; Eum & Rice, 2011; Jiao & Onwuegbuzie, 1998). While knowing I’m not alone is of some comfort, one of the biggest professional struggles I’ve had to overcome is learning to let go of projects, especially my writing.

You could say my entire career thus far has been an experiment in letting go, in telling myself, “It’s good enough, just send it out,” but nowhere has this needed to be repeated as much as in my research. For the most part, my research is not something I have to do; it’s something I want to do. I do it largely outside of my regular everyday work and is truly a labour of love. Because of this, there tends not be set deadlines (I attempt to set them for myself, but I’m not the strictest timekeeper), and I either a) procrastinate or b) agonize over tiny details instead of just getting it over with and letting it go.

Some of the tricks I’ve found useful in combatting my perfectionism and learning to let go:
• Embrace the mantra of good enough: This isn’t to say do the bare minimum, but accepting that perfection is unattainable and realizing that a finished project is a good project makes it easier to make progress on your research.
• Fight the urge to procrastinate: For me personally, it’s easy to procrastinate – it gives you an out for why something isn’t perfect. But this only exacerbates the problem.
• Set deadlines for yourself (and stick to them): This helps with the procrastination!
• Don’t go alone: Having a research partner or team has been incredibly helpful in learning to let go and can work as a support system when you’re obsessing about the details and unable to see the bigger picture.
• Love the draft: By completing drafts of my work, whether it be a research proposal or an article, I can slowly get used to the idea of letting go of my work in a staged process before sending it out into the world.
• Develop a network you trust: When you’re unsure of or fighting with a project, it’s useful to have a network of people you can talk to and receive feedback. It makes it easier to let go of a project when I know someone I respect thinks it’s good. And I do the same for them!
• Don’t re-read after you’ve submitted your work: This should go without saying, but unfortunately, I had an awful habit of re-reading an item right after I’ve hit submit or send. As I’m reading through, I’m thinking “I should have changed this or that that” and making myself feel dreadful instead of happy that I’ve finished. It’s an exercise in torture and since I’ve stopped, I feel much less critical of the work I’ve done and can actually celebrate a job well done.

“Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it. Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you got, and fix it along the way.”
– Paul Arden

References (and further reading)

Çapan, B. E. (2010). Relationship among perfectionism, academic procrastination and life satisfaction of university students. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 1665-1671.

Charbonneau, L. (2011). Perfectionist professors have lower research productivity. University Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/perfectionist-professors-have-lower-research-productivity/

Dunn, J. C., Whelton, W. J., & Sharpe, D. (2006). Maladaptive perfectionism, hassles, coping, and psychological distress in university professors. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 53(4), 511.

Eum, K., & Rice, K. G. (2011). Test anxiety, perfectionism, goal orientation, and academic performance. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 24(2), 167-178.

Hibner, H. (2016, Jan 19). Don’t overthink it: How librarians can conquer perfectionism with mindfulness. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://librarylostfound.com/2016/01/19/dont-overthink-it-how-librarians-can-conquer-perfectionism-with-mindfulness/

Jiao, Q. G., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (1998). Perfectionism and library anxiety among graduate students. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 24(5), 365-371.

Rockquemore, K. (2012). Overcoming academic perfectionism. [Web log series]. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/career-advice/overcoming-academic-perfectionism

Sherry, S. B., Hewitt, P. L., Sherry, D. L., Flett, G. L., & Graham, A. R. (2010). Perfectionism dimensions and research productivity in psychology professors: Implications for understanding the (mal)adaptiveness of perfectionism. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 42(4), 273-283. doi:10.1037/a0020466

Shives, K. (2014, Nov 11). The battle between perfectionism and productivity. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/battle-between-perfectionism-and-productivity

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.