Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield.

Brene Brown

There are diverse reasons why students struggle to complete their dissertations and other academic goals. After working with hundreds of students over the past couple of decades, I’ve heard them all. From external realities (jobs, children, finances) to personal challenges (mental health, stress load), the truth is that many graduate students find finishing their projects much more daunting than they originally expect.

And while those realities are legitimate, there’s usually another underlying accompanying issue at the heart of dissertation avoidance: the dead-weight of perfectionism. 

Fear is at the heart of perfectionism.

It’s logical to think that perfectionists deliver at a high standard…and who doesn’t want high standards? We should always strive to produce our very best work, right?

Interestingly, the reality is that often perfectionists perform poorly. They may be so stricken with the requirement of doing their absolute best that they’re paralyzed, unable to move forward at all.

That’s because underneath the resistance, there is a sense of fear, of potential failure, of not adequately meeting requirements, of disappointing oneself and others. And unless it’s faced, this feeling may unconsciously dictate our choices for long stretches of time. Years pass and a project like your dissertation becomes a dusty abstraction.

Waiting for the “perfect time or scenario” that never arrives. 

Many students fail to realize how ongoing perfectionism slowly erodes their goals and personal happiness. It’s typical for doctoral students to think that, in order to complete their dissertation to a high enough standard, all of life’s elusive puzzle pieces have to be in order: finances, family support, health, work, age, relationships…the list goes on.

The problem (of course) is that we never experience that almost-mystical time when everything falls neatly into place. Meanwhile, time passes…years…decades…and the dissertation (or novel or painting) never sees the light of day.

Are you a perfectionist? Ask yourself how harshly you judge others as well as yourself. 

Even if it’s just in your head, do you tend to be hypercritical of others’ efforts, as well as yours? No surprise: that internal judge doesn’t just nitpick others but relishes going after you. It’s difficult to pursue our goals and dreams with that level of harsh, unrelenting scrutiny. Undeniably, it’s not easy stopping that internal chatter but noting it is a start.

How well do you accept constructive criticism?

Perfectionists are notoriously testy when it comes to criticism, often treating it like a personal attack.  Defensiveness can indicate a rigidity that makes it difficult to address issues and move toward change. For obvious reasons, this gets in the way of accomplishing goals.

So you answered yes to both questions. 

Welcome to the club! Most of us experience varying degrees of perfectionism, depending on the goals we are working to achieve. Most importantly, how can it be dealt with so you can move forward with your dissertation?

Soften perfectionism for a more relaxed, successful you. 

When that harsh critic pops up, don’t try to silence it (that generally doesn’t work) but add something to the “discussion.” Consider what is working and how you have moved forward. Remind yourself of the dissertation phases you have already successfully completed, whether it’s your coursework, proposal, IRB application, etc. You haven’t given up; you’re resilient; you are resourceful. It may seem like a minor shift but broadening your perspective by reminding yourself of how far you’ve come can provide a state-of-mind reset.

Your New Mantra: Completion is enough. Think of the last time you finished a work-related project or tackled a fix-it task at home. Did you do it perfectly? Probably not. But did you feel that “ah” after finishing? You didn’t have to do it perfectly but you completed it. That alone is enough. What else have you simply completed today, without the fanfare of perfection? 

The reality is that dissertation perfection does not exist. This project is not meant to be your professional and personal magnum opus. It’s a stepping stone in your academic journey that demonstrates your ability to carry out, analyze and discuss research in a fairly narrow field.

Be kinder and gentler to yourself and others. Become that child.

It’s often said that we would never talk to a child the way we cavalierly criticize ourselves. How would you tell a child to complete a complex task? Most likely, you would support the child’s ups and downs and cheer like mad when he or she finished, right?

Practice developing rapport with your inner self. Get into the habit of self-kindness again. What did you do today that you can celebrate, no matter how small?  Take a moment to write down the personal and professional tasks you tackled today and feel grateful for your progress.

Perfectionism is nothing new and social media has amplified it, increasing anxiety and depression. It’s important to have a plan in place to push back on crippling societal norms. In 2023, how can you embrace your imperfect path and get to your personal finish line?

We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.
Dalai Lama XIV