Setting yourself challenging goals to achieve, and having high standards in the way you achieve them, is a positive trait. The fact that you are studying at Cambridge University is probably due in large part to your tendency to aim high and work hard, as well as your intellectual ability. However, if the desire to achieve takes the form of perfectionism, then it can become problematic, causing self-defeating behaviours, distress and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is the setting of unrealistic, unachievable goals and standards for yourself (and sometimes others). Such goals may be defined so vaguely that they become 'moving targets', never fulfilled, leaving you feeling that your work is never good enough, whatever that might mean. Cambridge is a very competitive environment which can encourage this type of thinking. Higher education is after all concerned with challenging, developing and assessing your work, and there will never be a point at which your work could be said to be perfect; there will always be more feedback and more to achieve. This context can encourage perfectionist tendencies.
Perfectionism can seem like an admirable trait, but can conversely lead to not doing your best, compromising the quality of your work, non-completion or non-submission, or neglect of some tasks at the expense of others. Perfectionism can take a number of forms in your academic work:
- Overwork. This is particularly common when revising for exams. Working too hard may mean that you learn less effectively, and are not fresh enough in the exam to do yourself justice.
- Difficulty in moving from reading to writing. It is easy to feel the need to read just one more book or article, that you haven't read enough yet, or haven't found the piece of information that will make the crucial difference to your essay.
- Difficulty in writing. Some people find it difficult to make progress with a piece of writing, either spending time endlessly redrafting a sentence and not moving on, or not starting at all. Others can complete a draft, but find themselves very reluctant to hand it in, feeling that it is not ready to be seen by others.
- Difficulty participating in supervisions or seminars. Sometimes we feel that we are not quite ready to speak, as we have not fully formulated our ideas or might make a mistake in articulating them. Often, the discussion moves on, and the opportunity is missed.
It is important to aim for modest improvements, rather than becoming perfectionist about tackling perfectionism. You could experiment with the following strategies:
- Find perspective and acknowledge your progress. It is easy to focus on the short term cycle of the weekly supervision essay. Each supervision essay represents a very steep learning curve on a completely new topic, with little sense of progress, and the sense that you're starting from scratch each week may exacerbate feelings that you are not doing well enough. If you look back over the term's or year's work, you will recognise how much you've learned about studying literature and writing essays. Remember that the majority of your essays are formative assessment, and are not intended to be your final word on a topic, but a starting point from which to develop your ideas further in the supervision. Likewise, you are not expected to have all the answers at the beginning of a supervision, but to challenge and develop your thinking as you discuss. Supervisions represent a safe space in which to form your thinking.
- Set realistic goals for yourself. This is common advice, but difficult to implement. No one intends to set themselves unrealistic goals; the problem is that perfectionists find it hard to tell whether their goals are achievable or even necessary. Defining your goals in a vague way, for example, "my work isn't good enough, I need to work harder", do not give an accurate and concrete sense of what "good enough" or "work harder" might mean. Defining your goals in a SMART way might help to visualise in concrete terms whether your aims are achievable, and to set limits on them. Looking at the English Faculty marking criteria may also help.
- Give yourself permission to produce something less than perfect. If you're stuck with writing, try using a different format, for example, using a pen and paper or recording yourself talking through your essay, rather than working straight onto the computer. Times New Roman 12 point font on your word processor can give the impression of something which needs to be more finished and polished than it is, at the stage of drafting. You could also try to deliberately write a bad version of your draft, to be improved afterwards. It is often easier to work with something bad than to produce something which is good from the start. These strategies will produce something with which you may not be happy, but will result in something that you could hand in, which is better than nothing, and will give you something to improve on.
- Set arbitrary limits. These could be limits on your time to prevent overwork, or spending too long on one task at the expense of others. They could also be limits on other tasks such as reading, giving yourself a certain number of books or articles to access. These limits will be somewhat arbitrary, but that doesn't matter as long as they are realistic. Talking to your supervisor, Director of Studies or fellow students may give you a concrete idea of what would be a reasonable amount of work to do. If you find it hard to keep to these limits, you could keep any additional editing or reading aside, and build in some time at the end of the essay writing process to complete any leftover tasks.
The University Counselling Service can offer further guidance on perfectionism, helping you explore what is causing it, and strategies to help you overcome it or manage it in a productive way. You might like to read their leaflet on perfectionism or attend a or attend a 'Can't Work' group session.