At the end of the academic year, some students will finish their modules with satisfaction, but others may feel a sense of incompleteness. Dr Jenny Lynden offers some advice.
It’s the end the end of another academic year and many students who have been able to complete their module will be relieved that coursework has been completed and assignments submitted, amidst the chaos of the pandemic. However, for some students there will be a sense of ‘incompleteness’ where EMAs/Exams have not been undertaken, or perhaps frustration where individual circumstances have led to module deferral.
In this context, when we have not achieved our goals in the way we anticipated, it is understandable that we may feel frustrated, angry, sad and so many other emotions besides. In time, and with good support from friends and family, tutors or educational advisers, we hope we’ll renew our focus and energy to craft new plans in returning to our learning journey.
However, for some students who experience ‘perfectionism’ this level of flexibility in changing and adapting plans may be particularly challenging. This is because perfectionism, in its maladaptive form, is associated with ‘core beliefs’ which reflect low levels of self-esteem, high levels of self-criticism and a conditional self-assessment which leads us to assess our personal worth on the basis of task achievement (Basco, 2000). This can cause us to continually strive for excellent performance based on ‘all or nothing’ thinking, intolerance of mistakes or incomplete tasks and sometimes excessive rumination. If we experience this type of perfectionism we are likely to feel shame, guilt or embarrassment when we don’t achieve or complete a task in the way we expect (Ellis, 2002). When this is experienced over a period of time, it has been linked to anxiety and/or depression (Tangney, 2002). It’s understandable then, in the current context, if we experience this kind of perfectionism and have more fixed beliefs that all module assignments (including EMAs and exams) must be completed and to a very high standard, we may well feel like we’ve failed and even label ourselves as a ‘failure’.
The good news is that we can change this experience! Cognitive behavioural coaching techniques have been used to identify individual experiences of perfectionism and whether those experiences are ‘specific’ (e.g. in academic or study contexts) or more global (e.g. experienced across many different settings). From there we can start to understand what rigid and inflexible ‘core beliefs’ might be associated with our experience of perfectionism, so that these ‘core beliefs’ can be disputed or challenged. For example, we can start to decouple our self-worth and self-esteem from task achievement, and challenge rigid demands that we must or should achieve a perfect or complete piece of work. Instead we can strengthen our healthier beliefs by focusing on doing our best, in the circumstances or context we are working in, and knowing that we can develop our performance through practise over time and by working with feedback and support (Shafran, Egan, & Wade, 2018). We can also practise self-compassion and self-care (Irons & Beaumont, 2017), which in turn is likely to lead to promoting our self-esteem and self-efficacy. This is a belief in our personal competence to access and use the resources we need to achieve our goals (Bandura, 1997).
There are many books and sources of support, based on research into how people experience perfectionism and how they can work to overcome it. Of course, it is also important to recognise that there are times when individual circumstances, such as those associated with the current pandemic, led to prolonged periods of stress, anxiety and depression. If you are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, please do seek help by contacting your general practitioner.
Wherever your learning journey has taken you to this year, we hope that you will be able to take a well-earned rest over the summer and that you will be able to resume your studies in the autumn. We look forward to welcoming you back.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control: Macmillan.
Basco, M. R. (2000). Never good enough: How to use perfectionism to your advantage without letting it ruin your life: Simon and Schuster.
Ellis, A. (2002). The role of irrational beliefs in perfectionism. In G. Flett & P. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment. (pp. 217-229). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Irons, C., & Beaumont, E. (2017). The compassionate mind workbook: A step-by-step guide to developing your compassionate self: Robinson.
Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2018). Overcoming Perfectionism: A self-help guide using scientifically supported cognitive behavioural techniques: Robinson.
Tangney, J. P. (2002). Perfectionism and the self-conscious emotions: Shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride. In G. Flett & P. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment. (pp. 199-215). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Jenny Lynden is a Staff Tutor in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Read about her here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/jml364