The Maddening Spiral of Perfectionism

I am in the midst of copy-editing my new book, Policing the Second Amendment. If you have a perfectionist streak and you’ve ever copy-edited anything that gets frozen in the form of an article, a book or even a blog, you know that this process can be maddening–so much so that you can actually end up sabotaging your ability to catch all the typos and weird turns-of-phrase because you are so hyped up on making everything “perfect” that you mistake the forest for the trees.

Perfectionism isn’t simply irritating and anxiety-producing to the person experiencing it.

I’m convinced that it actually undermines our ability not just to produce typo-free work (and really, what do a couple of typos matter? I’m sure you’ll find some even in this post!) but also to craft deep, meaningful work–both for ourselves and for our readers.

Alongside its besties workaholism and competitiveness, perfectionism contributes to a gross culture of socialization in academia, whereby we all torture ourselves because we think everyone is already torturing themselves–and if we don’t follow suit, we’ll never get ahead. Actually, screw getting ahead. We won’t even survive. Enjoyment becomes antithetical to achievement–except the enjoyment of a brutish and bleak work schedule that leaves no moment untethered to the academic enterprise. For its part, perfectionism gives us the illusion of meaning and structure when we can’t figure out what, exactly, we should be doing and why.

None of this is news. Most of us know that that working less usually means producing more–both more in terms of quality but also in terms of quantity. Most of us also know that our CVs won’t be printed on our graves–and how terrible it would be if they were!

But understanding these things intellectually doesn’t make perfectionism any less seductive when it comes to finding your all-too-elusive footing in an academic career. Like all weeks, I pick a theme for journaling, and this week, I’m spending some time reflecting on perfectionism as I wade through copyedits for my book.

Here are my prompts:

How does perfectionism relate to feeling safe?

What am I afraid will happen if I give up on perfectionism?

Do I hold yourself to a higher stand than others, and if so, why?

What’s something that you can do imperfectly? How does it feel to think about giving up on perfection in this instance?

How would your daily routine be without perfectionism?




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