Confessions of a Perfectionist Ph.D. Student: Desiring the Comfortable

As I stated in my blog post about my return to the Ph.D. program, the perfectionist in me must die. But I think that is a bit of an oversimplification of what overwhelmed me the first time around. To be completely candid, there are many other emotions, misconceptions, and thoughts that go into perfectionism. This series will go on as long as I need it to. I do have a plan for more than one.

Confession: Forgive me readers, for I thought research and writing should be free from anxiety.

Let’s face it, we all think that experienced authors are in a class of their own. The muses love them more than us.They wake up in the morning and beautifully constructed prose just flow from their pens. It’s almost effortless. All they need is pen an paper.They know what they are going to say and they say it perfectly. Our writing feels more like Odysseus trying to get home–full of difficulties.

But, talk to an experienced author about some new project they are writing and you’ll find out the real difference between you and them (that is, if you struggle with this….or even care about writing). They feel anxiety every time they begin a new writing project. Maybe not crippling anxiety like I did. But, anxiety in some form. They learned to manage it and work through it.

The anxiety for some, like myself, can be overwhelming.  We have a desire to write, but we don’t write anything because we are anxious. Even if it concerns subjects that we have studied for years. We are ultimately afraid of being wrong, not expressing things well, being disagreed with, or being called a bad writer.

Now, how do we manage that anxiety?

Use your anxiety to improve…not perfect: Go ahead and set aside the unreachable goal of being perfect in writing. However, our anxiety may not be completely without warrant. If we are worried about our grammatical correctness, or flow of prose, we may have a good reason for being anxious. So use that anxiety to improve! Pick up a book, or read a blog post about writing well. Pick one or two achievable goals and work on it during the next writing project. Work to become better, not perfect. Becoming a good writer is about becoming. It is a process.

Write in Community: I’m telling you this now, if you want to be successful in anything, bring the right people along with you. Most people who are labelled as successful usually aren’t alone. They have a good team. Your friends, family, or professors/colleagues, can give you good constructive feedback. If you are writing a book for a publisher, the editor will give you good feedback (please understand the editor wants the book to be a success so it will sell…therefore he is on your side). For example, I am a blunt man. But when writing a review of a book my bluntness may not be received well, especially for those authors I am critiquing. I will always bounce my writing off of someone else to help me express what I want to say in a way that won’t be off-putting. Bluntness between friends is a gift. But between strangers….its usually considered rude.

Write all the time: If we want to manage the anxiety of writing, we’ve got to work it in often. I keep a reading journal now, reviewing everything I’ve read and organizing my reactions to the reading.  It puts me in the habit of writing. It also gives me the chance to write in an atmosphere free from anyone’s evaluation except my own. Placing my thoughts about what I am reading helps my ideas mature and weakens some of the anxiety. When I go to officially write, my ideas have already had some written expression before the first draft. This removes some of the anxiety and speeds up the process of writing (which helps with the pressure of a deadline).

Until next time…

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