I hate to fail.
My failure avoidance leads to a tendency for overwork. I drive myself harder than any manager will, mostly out of fear of failure rather than love for the work. My feelings of insecurity make me a good employee and student, but they also put me at risk for burn out and exhaustion.
Relating? If so, read on because I think we really need to talk about what it’s like to be a failure avoider during a global pandemic.
In the past, I’ve hesitated to call myself a perfectionist. I can be remarkably messy. I have trouble with detail. I can say ‘good enough’ and hand things in. My house is very neat (but largely because my partner has higher hygiene standards than me). And yet, whenever I take a psych test for perfectionism? Off. The. Charts.
Apparently, you can be as sloppy as hell and a perfectionist at the same time. I find this confusing.
Apparently, you can be as sloppy as hell and a perfectionist at the same time. I find this confusing, so I prefer to think about what is going on with me as perfectionism-failure avoidance.
I have learned that this perfectionistic-failure avoidance tendency of mine is not about neatness. I want – no – I need my work to be seen as good and worthwhile by others. Feeling like I have failed in this aim can provoke an intense, almost visceral, sense of shame and a healthy dose of fear. I avoid this feeling as much as possible by working until I get it ‘right’.
The problem is, I never, ever feel I have it ‘right’.
This variant of perfectionism is not what they call ‘maladaptive’, but nor is it healthy. While I don’t beat myself up for missing occasional deadlines, I fear being ‘found out’ as a failure until people tell me what I have done is good. Only then do I feel a momentary, fleeting sense of relief – but it doesn’t last long before I am back into the perfectionistic cycle again on a new project.
I must, at some level, crave the praise that comes with success, or I wouldn’t work so hard. But when people actually praise me, I get quite uncomfortable.
I don’t take much pleasure in my achievements either. I must, at some level, crave the praise that comes with success, or I wouldn’t work so hard. But when people actually praise me, I get quite uncomfortable. I wince inside when people call me a ‘super-star’ and list my achievements before I give a public talk. I feel like the person they are describing is not me, but I have to be here to accept the praise on her behalf because she does sound pretty awesome.
I am an academic and I suspect academia is the perfect petri dish for this perfectionist-failure avoidance tendency of mine to grow and metastasize because I meet people like myself ALL THE TIME.
Many of the failure-avoidant PhD students and working researchers I meet are super anxious and looking for ‘rules’ that they can follow to get it ‘right’ (sadly, there are not many I can offer).
These people are often exhausted and burned out. When you tell these high-achievers they are doing fantastic work, and their project is close to being done, they immediately tell you how it’s not good enough. They work extremely hard – probably too many hours – but are extremely reluctant to pull back. They tend to react with fear and trepidation when you suggest they are over-doing it a bit. They never seem satisfied with their achievements and, before a project is even done, will take on another, even harder one.
This pattern of behaviour is often called ‘the imposter syndrome’. I don’t like to use the term ‘imposter syndrome’. As far as I know, it’s not been independently validated as an actual psychological condition, so it’s problematic to give it that label. As my ‘blog sister’ Pat Thomson points out, by calling this behaviour a ‘syndrome’, we pathologise a rational reaction to being in a hierarchical, competitive place like a university, surrounded by high achievers.
Calling this behaviour a ‘syndrome’, we pathologise a rational reaction to being in a hierarchical, competitive place … surrounded by high achievers.
To understand what is going on here I think we need to delve deeper into the literature on perfectionism. According to psychologists Hewitt and Flett, there are three kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed. All perfectionists will be a little of each type, but consider this list of questionnaire items for socially-prescribed perfectionists, which I have adapted from their 45 item multi-dimensional perfectionism scale:
- People around me expect me to succeed
- If my work is less than excellent, it will be seen by others around me as poor
- The better I do, the better I am expected to do
- Success on this project will mean I have to work harder on the next one to meet people’s expectations.
It’s easier to understand socially prescribed perfectionism by thinking about it as a physical affliction. I’ve been told by doctors that I also have a high tolerance for physical pain – which can be dangerous because I don’t listen to danger signals from my body. I will walk 15 km on a ‘sore ankle’ around Tokyo and end up on crutches for a month.
Similarly, socially prescribed perfectionism distorts your internal perceptions of quality. You worry what other people think so much that you set the bar extremely high for your own success. Over time, your sense of what ‘failure’ means is all out of whack. Basically, your ‘failure’ is other people’s ‘pretty damn ok’.
If you’re anything like me, the praise you get from being an over-achiever can trigger an internal need for more praise. But getting more praise doesn’t necessarily help you feel like you can stop and rest. Here’s the thing: a person who seeks praise and recognition, but then cannot accept or enjoy it when it is offered, probably doesn’t like themselves very much.
The truth of that stings a little.
We need to recognise that these imposter feelings are not a ‘syndrome’ because they cannot be cured, only managed.
We need to recognise that these imposter feelings are not a ‘syndrome’ because they cannot be cured, only managed. My best advice is to recognise the thinking pattern, pretend for argument’s sake that it is ‘imposter syndrome’ and give it a name.
I call my imposter syndrome Beryl.
She’s my nagging great aunt, sitting on the edge of a sofa with a teacup saying “Oh no, no, no Inger. Do you really think you should do that? What will people think of you?’.
Beryl keeps me sharp. It pays to listen to her, but critically. Sometimes she’s warning me about a real problem. In that case, I need to listen up and do something about it. Other times she’s just being an uptight, prissy old bitch and can be safely ignored. Don’t let Beryl rule your life, ok?
Dr Inger Mewburn is the Director of Researcher Development at Australian National University and the keeper of the blog The Thesis Whisperer which is dedicated to the topic of doing a PhD and completing a dissertation. This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on Inger Mewburn’s blog ThesisWhisperer. The original version is here.