Academic perfectionism leads me to avoid studying altogether

What do a top athlete and an academic have in common? 

In the world of high achievers, perfectionism reigns. An unrelenting pursuit of flawlessness. In contemporary psychology, perfectionism is viewed as a spectrum, with maladaptive perfectionism being the neurotic variant that triggers adjustment issues like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. 

In academia, perfectionism becomes a different beast. We are thrown into a world where unrealistic goals and accomplishments are not only expected, but celebrated. In this alternate reality, adjustment problems manifest as imposter syndrome, procrastination, and burnout. 

I am the procrastinator that puts other procrastinators to shame. The best time to pick up a new hobby or spring clean my entire place is of course exam season. It is as if I become a completely different person during exams, an anxious creature cleaning their cage. 

Research highlights how perfectionism significantly contributes to procrastination in students. Yet, if I am striving for perfection, why avoid the task altogether?

I would rather fail spectacularly from not trying than having tried but coming short of perfect

The New York Times asked, ‘If procrastination isn’t about laziness, then what is it about?’ They conclude that procrastination has everything to do with emotional regulation. Negative emotions are often attached to tasks and we respond with avoidance due to fear of failure or imposter syndrome (which is essentially a low academic self-esteem). 

Coping with my negative emotions often involves seeking refuge in distractions, because it convinces me a task remains perfect if incomplete. I would rather fail spectacularly from not trying than having tried but coming short of perfect. It is like the silver medal theory – when you are a top athlete it feels better to get a bronze medal than a silver, because second place just highlights how close you actually came to gold but that you simply weren’t good enough. 

If procrastination is Jekyll, then burnout is Hyde. Burnout is utter mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. This buzzword is often misunderstood and in reality, is symptomatic of depression. While it affects various people, academic perfectionism can often be the culprit. I don’t want to realize that I have placed too much pressure on myself only after I’ve reached a breaking point. 

Productivity hacks are great but not magic. It’s better to recognize procrastination and what triggers it. Boredom is usually my trigger, so I like to add creativity where I can. Toxic academic environments foster maladaptive perfectionism. But we can actively contribute to a healthier academic setting by asking questions shamelessly and demystifying the world of scary, stoic academics. 

In an age of information and collaboration, the dusty laws of academia must change if it is to have a place in the future of education. 

CARLA ERASMUS

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