Overcoming perfectionism by embracing imperfection and learning to ask for help

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Ask for help

The ambition for perfection may be one of the effective drivers for high-achieving students. Perfectionism, however, can be paralyzing for students, especially when embarking on a major research project. The issue is not going away––according to a study published in 2018, perfectionism has increased significantly among young adults since 1980①. On the other hand, while perfectionism tends to have a purely negative connotation, research suggests that there is in fact a healthy way to be a perfectionist②. While one style of perfectionism leads to self-doubt and obsessing over past failures––what psychologists term maladaptive perfectionism––adaptive perfectionists set high standards for themselves without dwelling on the past. It is important to reframe maladaptive perfectionism to avoid being paralyzed and overwhelmed. Pioneer scholars share that their research experience pushed them to overcome maladaptive perfectionism while continuing to hold themselves to high standards. By embracing the “imperfection” of rough drafts and learning to seek help without embarrassment, these Pioneer scholars grew as learners and researchers. 

Yifei (mechanical engineering, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from China, quickly learned that the perfectionism that had allowed her to excel in high school classes was actually a hindrance to conducting authentic research.   “I used to be a perfectionist, because I found out that achieving perfection is the best way to achieve good grades in traditional studies as a high school student. But after I started to develop my paper, the first struggle I encountered was the brand new process of using the Oberlin Library and using the Pioneer Writing Center to check my essay. I struggled with that because I found out that there are so many books and so many resources that I could reach. According to my former habit, I would just read all of them to achieve perfection, but that is impossible… I struggled, and I found out that I was uncomfortable with not being perfect. From all those papers, I needed to select the ones I could handle and that were useful for me,” she explains. For Yifei, overcoming her perfectionism meant being adaptable and realistic about what she needed to succeed. 

Charlie (biochemistry, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, found themself paralyzed by maladaptive perfectionism while writing their rough draft. “I needed to work a lot on time management. Although I was able to manage throughout most of the program, when I was writing the rough draft I found that I was so intimidated by writing it that I couldn’t get myself to write it in time,” they explain. Charlie worked through this challenge with their professor, who gave them feedback and encouragement throughout the process. Their advice to current Pioneer scholars?  “Just write. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s a rough draft.” 

For Yining (literature, 2018; anthropology, 2019), a Pioneer scholar from China, the key to approaching perfectionism in an adaptive way is knowing that he can’t do it alone.  “There are benefits to handing in an imperfect draft. Although I may be a perfectionist, I know I can’t achieve a perfect paper alone. I might need advice from the Writing Center with regard to how I can improve my writing, clarify my arguments, and strengthen my thesis. In order to be a perfectionist, you have to accept that your drafts are imperfect, and you have to improve them by consulting others’ opinions.” A willingness to make mistakes and accept constructive criticism from peers and mentors is crucial in research. 

Pioneer’s structure forces students to let go of maladaptive perfectionism. Small cohorts, one-on-one mentoring, and frequent draft submissions mean that students cannot hide in a classroom. More importantly, Pioneer scholars are supported in becoming adaptive perfectionists, holding themselves to high standards while feeling comfortable asking for feedback and advice. Pioneer’s Writing Center provides personalized feedback on drafts, as do faculty mentors and peers. By embracing the imperfection of rough drafts, Pioneer scholars find the support they need to improve and move forward.

① https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/01/perfectionism-young-people

② https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Impact-of-Perfectionism-on-Students-The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Indifferent.aspx

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