Unconditional Teaching

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The poisonous perfectionist vs the constructive critic

Tyll Zybura | 27 Oct 2019 |

Perfectionism is a fear-based attitude towards failure that inhibits learning and encourages self-sabotage. We can fight it by strengthening the inner constructive critic to focus on processes of revision and improvement.

Perfectionism is fear in really nice shoes pretending to be fancy. But it’s just terror. Perfectionism is the lie that says there’s a rent you have to pay to be on this earth. —Elizabeth Gilbert

When students in my writing consultations call themselves ‘perfectionists’, it raises all the red flags with me. Because ‘perfectionism’ is poisonous.

My work is crap. Ergo, I am crap.

The inner perfectionist is a voice that shouts “What I do is crap! I am crap!” – it is an unhealthy, fear-based attitude toward failure that poisons students’ minds with anxiety and self-deprecation: it creates depression and self-hatred.

The inner poisonous perfectionist also doesn’t actually inspire greatness. It doesn’t say “Come on, let’s think about how to do this better.” Instead, it says “How stupid are you? Do it right or don’t do it. There is no room for failure, you noob.”

In effect, it obstructs the gradual improvement of students’ work: For the poisonous perfectionist, perfection is a binary concept. Its only contrast is failure. And if perfection is the yardstick, it is impossible to appreciate the steps that make writing good and better.

Strategies of the poisonous perfectionist

Do it right or don’t do it, you noob!

In my writing supervision, I have encountered three main strategies that perfectionist students use to sabotage themselves out of fear of failure:

Deleting draft text

During a term paper consultation in response to my routine question about their writing process a student said that they were working on their third draft. I said “So, you’re reworking your text to improve it step by step, that’s cool!” – only to be horrified when the student casually clarified that, no, they had in fact deleted two drafts of their paper already and were re-writing the entire thing for the third time.

The thought of all their work – just gone – still makes me cringe with sympathetic writer’s dread. It had never crossed my mind that someone would approach writing like that: Either it works or you do it again from scratch. And again.

And neither had it occured to the student that they could have saved their drafts, picked the best bits from both, revised them to become better, and build their text bit by bit. “But it was crap, it just didn’t express what I wanted to express,” they said. This is the all-or-nothing attitude of perfectionism.

Unfortunately, this strategy is enabled by the fact that most students have never learned how to write draft text.

They have no real idea what distinguishes a draft from the final text because their writing education has been a series of one-shots – exams or homework assignments that weren’t allowed to grow over any extended period of time.

They have no idea what revision means because they’ve usually received final grades for their submitted texts (which were only ever first drafts), and even if they received feedback along with the grades, it was meaningless because it couldn’t be used to improve the text it was given on.

Not starting to write

Not writing anything in the first place is a related strategy: These perfectionists spend endless time with reading and research, not producing any output. “At least zero text is not bad text – and more research is always useful, isn’t it,” is what they tell themselves.

Eventually, both these strategies of perfectionism often lead students to abandon the paper project altogether because other projects have become more important in the meantime. Then they don’t get back in touch because they think I wouldn’t accept their paper anymore, anyway – and they start the process all over with another lecturer.

Not submitting finished work

A second, even more tragic, strategy is to avoid submission of a final paper (or even a draft) at all costs. Their inner poisonous perfectionist disables students to stand by their work – nothing will ever be good enough, so nothing is what I get.

It’s not even that these students spend inordinate amounts of time polishing their papers – that would require the acknowledgment that polishing is a necessary step in a process of improvement. No, they write a complete paper (an unrevised draft written to the best of their ability), then they decide that the paper is unworthy and abort the project.

In this case, it becomes most obvious that the poisonous perfectionist is a voice of terror: These students are afraid of negative feedback from me because they cannot see it as anything but a permanent stain of failure.

Their poisonous perfectionist has taught them that a person is what a person achieves, that the mark of greatness is great achievements – and what else is there in life to do other than aim for the best? Because their ‘perfectionism’ connects the value of their work to the value of themselves as persons, anything critical I say about their work will reflect badly on their character.

Many students have learned to mistake achievement for worthiness and receiving a top grade for being a good person.

Nobody wants to be thought of as lazy or stupid or unoriginal. But for self-labeled ‘perfectionists’, their sense of self depends on the approval of others to such an extent that they cannot imagine how anyone whom they respect could ever respect them. Their fear of being disrespected – because of imperfect work – leads them to not submit anything at all.

These students are often those who did great at school, where they received top grades and abundant positive feedback from their teachers. At school, they learned to mistake achievement for worthiness and receiving a top grade for being a good person – because the result-oriented authoritarian structure of schooling facilitates that kind of thinking among high-achieving students.

But at school, these students at least knew the rules, they knew the teachers and they felt fairly secure in their knowledge of assessment criteria. At university, they often discover that their school-skills are useless, that their knowledge is outdated or irrelevant, and that lecturers in the same department have wildly different assessment criteria (which they take for granted and don’t often explain). Here, they cannot but fail – and they don’t know how to do it.

Ignoring constructive feedback

Success is relative while perfection is absolute, and anything less then perfection is still failure.

The third strategy is more ‘functional’ than the first and second, because students at least bring themselves to submit their papers. But they read my appreciative responses to their writing selectively for criticism and they ignore all the appreciation I give them.

In the consultations, when they’ve read my response with a preliminary grade and suggestions for supervision, students who use this strategy – no matter how good the grade or how positive my feedback – often immediately begin to self-deprecate and apologize for their mistakes, to justify themselves for their sub-par work, or to tell me how ‘kind’ I am to write them such a good critique.

The latter is especially telling because it shows that they simply don’t believe me when I write good things about their work: They know that they didn’t achieve perfection, so they don’t understand why I won’t call them out as the failure they are. They think so little of themselves that they cannot imagine that I would think more highly of them for any other reason than being ‘kind’ (which effectively translates to: being benevolently dishonest about what I really think).

This strategy reveals how self-defeating poisonous perfectionism is even in success: Because, since perfection cannot be achieved, success is impossible. Success is relative while perfection is absolute, and anything less then perfection is still failure.

University systemically facilitates this strategy because it doesn’t create occasions of comparison: Students never learn how, specifically, their work compares to that of other students. Neither in result, nor in process. They also never learn how their teachers write, what their draft papers looked like, or what distinguishes professionally published papers from student writing (often very little, in my experience, except that – ironically – student writing is scrutinized for plagiarism to much higher standards than professional writing).

The effect is that students rarely see gradations of success, improvement over time, or the application of assessment criteria in practice. Writing, to them, is monolithic, as if professionally written texts are plonked down into the world as is by geniuses who just know how to write perfectly.


Enter the constructive critic

Doubt and criticism are essential to scholarship.

Now, dissatisfaction with imperfection is not a problem in itself. But measuring every step of the way on an implausible end-result is a problem. Not seeing that there are steps involved with writing is a problem. Poisonous perfectionism blinds people to the construction work that is involved in high-quality results, it obfuscates process.

As teachers and writing instructors, we can help students battle their inner poisonous perfectionist by talking more about process instead of results and more about strategies instead of skills.

That doesn’t mean that we have to discourage doubt and criticism – quite the opposite because these are essential to professional scholarship. But we can provide a different voice for students to model their inner framing of their own work on, a voice that speaks reason instead of fear, that speaks connection instead of self-protection, that speaks mindfulness instead of punishment.

The inner constructive critic doesn’t let go of doubt but uses it as energy to fuel a work-centred cycle of revision and improvement instead of a self-centred cycle of paralysis and self-loathing.

The constructive critic also doesn’t have absolute standards of quality but an awareness of cost-benefit relations, so that it knows when it is okay to go for good enough or embrace mindful mediocrity. It prevents the perfectionist impulse to set the bar for every task equally high and encourages assessment of each task’s importance relative to reasonable, self-defined goals and priorities.

This is crap? Let’s work on it!

Most importantly, as writing instructors, we can be the constructive critic. We can treat student writing not as an exercise to be sceptically corrected but as a scholarly endeavour to be respectfully critiqued. We can avoid the institutionally sanctified view of students as deficient creatures, as unskilled, lazy or unmotivated, with only some elect few as worthy of our academic patronage. We can talk more humbly about our own writing biography as an ongoing and incomplete path, and share with our students our own failed attempts and our own strategies for revision. We can make our own criteria for good scholarship and assessment transparent and open to discussion, showing how subjective they are, how we came by them and how we would defend them if questioned.

I think the step from poisonous perfectionism to constructive criticism benefits most from disclosure of process: We need to make overt how we as writers improve our work, how we manage time, how we generate ideas, how we cope with criticism, how we overcome self-doubt and depression.

Because, let’s not kid ourselves here – the poisonous perfectionist is not just a voice in the head of individual students. We all have it in our heads, because it is the institutional voice of higher education as such. It is a systemic structure of elitism.

We can only fight this voice by changing institutional practices: practices of teaching, of supervision, of teacher-student communication. This is, ultimately, what this project is about.


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