Do you hold yourself to very high standards? Feel shame and guilt when you make a mistake? Do you stay up all hours of the night trying to make sure your class assignments are “good enough?” Do you worry that your grades will suffer if you take a break and let yourself relax? Do you believe that even minor imperfections will lead to catastrophes? Are you afraid people will be disappointed in you if you don’t perform to expectations? Do you ever feel angry, exhausted, frustrated, or depressed when trying to meet your standards?
If you answered yes to even a few of these questions, you may be struggling with perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a very real and very tricky thing. On the one hand, setting a high bar for oneself and striving to do our very best can be positive and often results in success. In fact, a certain amount of pressure is necessary to excel in life. On the other hand, perfectionism can become a roadblock to achieving. Perfectionists often struggle with procrastination and burnout, which then lowers their productivity and brings up feelings of shame and low self worth.

Here’s the problem: at some point along people’s path to success, drive and motivation became synonymous with pressure, self-criticism, and fear of failure. In fact, many people worry that lowering the bar on one’s expectations of oneself will result in a loss of motivation, poorer outcomes, and subsequent failure. These individuals truly believe that they must hold themselves to impossibly high standards in order to succeed or else risk abject failure. Perfectionists often compare themselves to their peers — who they assume are not struggling with the same problems — and feel the need to “keep up,” often pushing themselves to the breaking point.

Many students come to the Counseling Center reporting symptoms of depression and/or anxiety when really, the underlying culprit is perfectionism! In many cases, it is usually only when their grades have begun to suffer that these individuals actually consider reaching out for help. It is at this point that students often report a tremendous sense of confusion, despair, and low self-worth. Many students will say, “I just don’t know what happened, but it’s like I’m so tired, I feel like a failure, and don’t even want to try anymore.” I will try to explain to these students that, the very same mechanism that helped them succeed and get into college in the first place, has now backfired on them, leaving them exhausted, overwhelmed, and unhappy.

So, what to do?

  • The first step is to challenge the belief that you cannot succeed unless you are performing at 150%, 24/7. The key is to realize that people actually perform better when their motivation comes from a place of encouragement and enthusiasm, as opposed to fear and pressure.
  • If you think you struggle with perfectionism, accept it! Own it! We can only change something if we accept that it exists.
  • Cultivate self-awareness. Try to stay mindful of perfectionistic thinking. See if you can catch & stop yourself from engaging in:
    • Black or White thinking (eg: “I won’t hand in assignments if I don’t feel they are perfect.”)
    • Catastrophic thinking (eg: “If I get a bad grade on this exam, I won’t get into grad school and my future will be ruined!”)
    • Should statements (eg: “I should be studying right now instead of spending time with friends.”)
  • Identify your values/goals and determine whether or not perfectionism is actually helping you adhere to those values. For example, if your value is to perform well and feel a sense of accomplishment, ask yourself if perfectionism is actually helping you reach those goals, or are you forever feeling like your work is “not good enough?”
  • Allow yourself time to relax, take a break, hang out with friends, sleep, have fun! You will soon see that easing up on yourself will actually increase your motivation and performance!
  • Seek support. Talking about perfectionism will help you feel less alone and find ways to be more effective with less stress and inner turmoil.

By Chandra Mundon, Psy.D.