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Amy Green PhD
Amy Green PhD

Grad Students and Perfectionism

Let yourself off the hook once in awhile.

Ben White / / CCO 1.0
Source: Ben White / / CCO 1.0

Samantha Bennett, author of Get It Done and self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist offers the following advice for overcoming perfectionism once and for all:

"Get a 'C'."

She continues: "Quit trying to get an A+ on everything: Just get a C."

For the past couple months I've failed to update this blog, mostly because I've been busy with exams, practicum, and other writing assignments. But not only have I been consumed by all of these things, I’ve been trying to get an A+ (tangibly or theoretically speaking) on all of them, which is time-consuming to say the least.

I’ve also been struggling to come up with the “perfect” blog post; in other words, I’ve been trying to get an A+ on this blog and, in the process, have failed to write anything at all.

So when I came across Bennett's book this morning, I knew it was time to just "get it done." So, here it is folks – perhaps not the profound post I was hoping for, but, I think, an important one all the same.

The Perfectionism Dilemma for Grad Students

Perfectionism – assuming that is the construct underlying the need to get an A+ on everything – involves the tendency to set high standards for oneself that either cannot be met or can only be met with great difficulty. The conundrum for psychology graduate students is the double-sided relationship our field has with this trait. On the academic side, perfectionism is celebrated and associated with high performance, persistence, and conscientiousness. We are rewarded with scholarships, raving reference letters, and accolades on our C.V.s (which we're told, by the way, should continuously be growing) when we meet consistently high standards.

On the clinical side, however, perfectionism is often viewed self-destructive; as Dr. Furnham wrote in his post, “The Curse of Perfectionism”:

Psychologists see perfectionism almost always as a handicap. They see perfectionists as vulnerable to distress, often haunted by a chronic sense of failure, indecisiveness and its close companion procrastination, and shame.

So what’s a grad student to do?

Get a C – Within Reason

Obviously, setting high standards and striving to do our best can be a positive thing (and was likely a contributing factor in that grad school acceptance letter!). So simply “getting a C” is not as simple as, well, simply getting a C. However, letting ourselves off the hook once in awhile can contribute to overall sense of wellbeing, productivity, and time management (imagine how much extra time you’d have if you allowed yourself to stop working on your assignment after an hour of “good enough” vs. three hours of “perfect”).

Shift Your Perspective

It can be helpful to think about certain tasks as works in progress, rather than an end goal, which allows for more flexibility. Preston Ni recommends “refining towards excellence” rather than “fixating on perfection” and, in doing so, seeing trial and error as fundamental components of constant improvement. He suggests that “often time, it’s important and healthy to simply say that something you have done is ‘sufficient,’ ‘acceptable,’ ‘satisfactory,’ or 'a step in the right direction,’ and move on without ruminating over imperfections."


Naturally, some tasks are more pertinent to excel at than others - especially those that are directly related to your overall goals/purpose in life. It makes sense to over-prepare for your final dissertation defense, which likely represents years of research, work, and far too many late-night Starbucks runs. Give 100% on the tasks that are most important to you, and then reassure yourself that it’s OK to put in less effort on the rest. Sometimes, the goal is just to complete the task – not to make it perfect.

My own relationship with perfectionism and "getting it done" is certainly a work in progress, but I need to thank Sam Bennett and her words of wisdom for giving me the necessary motivation to finish this post today. For more from Sam Bennett, read an excerpt from her newest book here.

About the Author
Amy Green PhD

Amy Green, M.A., is a doctoral student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary.

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