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Avoiding Perfectionism Can Save Your Teaching Career

Avoiding Perfectionism Can Save Your Teaching Career

Everything doesn't have to line up just exactly the way you believe it should.

Almost every teacher I know works for perfection. Teachers hold themselves to lofty standards and push themselves continuously. So before you commit to a dozen resolutions this New Year, find out why avoiding perfectionism can help you be a more productive, healthy, and happy teacher.

The Dangers of Perfectionism

Brene Brown is a research professor who spent decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. On Oprah's Lifeclass, she explained the danger of the quest for perfectionism in plain language: "When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun, and fear is the annoying backseat driver. We struggle for perfectionism in areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame."

Her definition of perfection was on point: "It's a way of thinking that says if I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid criticism, blame, and ridicule."

The Difference between Striving and Perfectionism

Dr. Brown also explained the difference between striving and perfectionism. "Healthy striving is internally focused. It's: I want to do this and be the best that I can be. Perfectionism is not about what I want. Perfection is actually: What will people think? And you can't ever do anything brave if you're wearing the straitjacket of what will people think."

Further reading: The Signs of Teacher Burnout and How to Prevent It

As a teacher, I can relate. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to get my doctorate. I had no real reason to do so; I had my master's degree and my National Board Certification, I'd been teaching at the college level for several years, and I was very happy with my job as an English teacher. Since my quest for perfectionism said a doctorate was necessary, I applied and was accepted to a prestigious institution.

After getting As in my first four courses, I realized that I didn't feel fulfilled. The work wasn't as enjoyable as earning my master's degree. It took up so much of my time that I was no longer doing the things I loved, like taking my students on field trips, bringing in guest speakers, and staying after school to chat and build relationships.

But I was terrified to quit! What would people think? Just thinking about quitting made me anxious and depressed. I spoke to my best friend, who is a therapist, and she told me the quest for perfectionism would always make me unhappy and to listen to my heart. I dropped out. No one cared, life went on, and I was much happier.

4 Ways to Avoid Perfectionism

1. Find a Mantra

In Psychology Today, licensed social worker Kristen Lee suggests some mantras that can help teachers get a handle on perfectionism to avoid spiraling irrational thoughts and behaviors. These include reminding yourself that "being perfect isn't the key to social acceptance" and "perfect isn't sustainable." Instead, Dr. Lee suggests rethinking perfectionism and striving for what positive psychologists call "The Good Life"—connections, value, alignment, and greater presence with ourselves and one another.

Take time to sit down, recognize and appreciate the connections you have, and remember the value you provide for your students.

2. Be Self-Aware

Svetlana Whitener of The Forbes Coaches Council states that self-awareness can play a role in avoiding perfectionism. If you think about the last time you attempted perfectionism and then examine the negative impacts from that experience, you're more likely to be happy with "good enough" actions that can simply take you from point A to point C without stress.

One year, for example, I set the goal of taking my students out of the classroom on field trips at least once a month. I wanted my students to learn from the field. After stressing myself out so badly trying to raise money, get free tickets to events, arrange buses, and get permission slips signed, I quickly realized my goal was too lofty. I still take my students on field trips, but I'm happy with taking one trip every couple of months.

3. Cultivate Authenticity

Some people proudly proclaim their perfectionism, but Dr. Brown cautions that this is not a positive trait. Perfectionists are "ultimately afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are, and they won't measure up."

Instead, she says, be authentic and true to yourself. Dr. Brown reminds us that "authenticity is a practice," and we need to choose it every day—sometimes even every hour. In order to be authentic, we must be willing to let go of what other people think of us.

One of my colleagues, for example, felt enormous pressure to become an administrator. After a year on the job, he knew he had made a terrible mistake, and he recognized he wasn't being his authentic self. It took courage for him to let others know he made a mistake, but he is much happier back in the classroom.

4. Understand That Failure Can Provide Its Own Lessons

Last year, two of my colleagues planned a trip with their advisories to Texas to help Hurricane Harvey victims. The students had to do a great deal of planning and raise an enormous amount of money to go. They worked endlessly on fundraisers, but they ultimately came up short. They were devastated, but some of the students got together and presented a talk about the experience at our student showcase.

They realized that even though they didn't reach their goal, they learned many valuable skills from their attempt, and they bonded with their classmates for a common cause. Even though they didn't go on their trip, they still raised money for the hurricane victims, and they learned so much from their journey.

Further reading: 6 Strategies to Relieve Teacher Anxiety

This New Year, think about adding "avoiding perfectionism" to your resolutions. Adjusting your mind-set will help relieve anxiety and depression, and your newfound optimism will help you enjoy greater success and freedom.