Perfectionism can both help and hinder your progress when it comes to studying for a proctored exam. Perfectionist tendencies can make you feel super motivated and successful or the fear of failure can hold you back from really absorbing your study materials and succeeding on your exam. How can you recognize habits of perfectionism in your study routine and how can you learn to combat them?
What is Perfectionism?
As with any personality trait or quirk, perfectionism can look a little different for everyone. For some people, perfectionism can look like success, ambition, needing structure and control and feeling uncomfortable with unpredictability. For other people, perfectionism can look like procrastination, getting overwhelmed, taking on too many responsibilities or that image of being a deer caught in the headlights. For a lot of people, perfectionism can mean a loud inner critic and unrealistic personal standards. Having a strong fear of failure can also connect to procrastination, which hurts your chances of succeeding.
Maybe the thought has crossed your mind that either you will ace this exam, or you will fail it. Either you will achieve your dreams today or you never will. If you have ever had these types of thoughts, you may be leaning on all-or-nothing thinking. This kind of polarized thinking is one aspect of perfectionism, but it is not the only perspective out there or the way that you can think about a situation. How would it feel if you aimed for a more grounded and realistic approach? What if you simply put in the work and tried your best, instead of obsessing over the outcome? You could end up noticing a major shift in how you feel and improve your test scores while you are at it.
The Academic Perspective
Within the field of psychology, perfectionism is often broken down into two core ideas about how we strive for success and how we are concerned with failure. Researchers Martin Smith, Donald Saklofske, Gonggu Yan and Simon Sherry succinctly define perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns in their academic article about the interactions between these two psychological concepts. On one hand, perfectionistic strivings are defined as "ceaselessly and rigidly demanding perfection of the self." On the other hand, perfectionistic concerns are described as those "nagging self-doubts, excessive concerns over others’ expectations, and overly negative reactions to perceived failures." Perfectionist habits can of course vary and there is often plenty of overlap between what we strive for and what we fear losing. Which of these two ideas do you relate to more?
Researchers Jana Gäde, Karin Schermelleh-Engel, and Andreas Klein explain the dynamic further with their academic article about disentangling the commonalities of perfectionist strivings and concerns. Their collective research explores how "perfectionistic strivings are positively correlated with hope for success, whereas perfectionistic concerns are positively correlated with fear of failure." What they are essentially saying is that perfectionism can help us out when we are inspired and motivated to strive for excellence, but perfectionism can also hinder our success when we are overcome with fears of failure.
Letting Go of Perfectionism
What can you do when you notice perfectionism creeping in before a big exam or deadline? There are a number of useful and uplifting habits that you can build through intentional practice. The first thing that you can do is to be kind and generous with yourself. Try positive affirmations to give you a boost in confidence and remind yourself that everything will be okay. By thinking positively, you can actually rewire the pathways in your brain to focus on the good. You will end up feeling better and will be better able to make slow and steady progress.
On the day of your exam, try not to obsess over a single question or section. Move through the questions at a steady pace and you may find that the overall experience is more positive. This goes for studying too. When we obsess or fixate on a particular challenge or learning obstacle, we use up all our mental energy. Your focus and attention can be better put to use by thoughtfully demonstrating your knowledge and insight.
Finding Your Optimal Environment
How can you set yourself up for success in other ways? Finding a calm and secure environment for your proctored exam can make all the difference. Look for external proctoring services with an organization that has positive reviews and thorough safety and security guidelines, such as ATS. A professional atmosphere can help reduce the stress or anxiousness that often comes along with a perfectionist mindset.
No one can undo years of perfectionism overnight, but having awareness and slowly building up positive habits will help you so much in the long run. When you are easier on yourself and let go of perfectionist concerns, you will ultimately do better on your exam. You will not be so wrapped up in the fear of failure, which will allow you to more comfortably and confidently go through the exam.
Written by CJ McGillivray