As a student, holding yourself to a high standard often translates into higher goal attainment and better grades. But when the inability to meet an unrealistically high standard results in physical and emotional strain, perfectionism may be to blame.
Perfectionists strive for—you guessed it—perfection, or an extremely high, often unattainable, standard. Counterintuitively, perfectionism can interfere with the ability to meet goals and deadlines, contribute to anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Through their own experiences with perfectionism, Master’s students and peer mentors Jody Nelson and Shannon Gentry share examples and best practices for managing the less productive aspects of this personality trait:
Perfectionists strive for an extremely high, often unattainable, standard.
What does perfectionism look like? How do you know if you’re a perfectionist?
Perfectionism can manifest differently in different students, but it often takes the following forms:
How can I overcome perfectionism?
The good news is that it’s possible to combat perfectionist tendencies with a positive mindset, self-awareness, and practice.
Jody and Shannon suggest these 5 strategies:
In moderation, constructive self-criticism can encourage growth, but, when the voice in your head becomes “overly critical and negative,” Shannon explains, it does more harm than good:
"Some common phrases that are extremely harmful and unhelpful (but easy to identify when I pay attention) include:
- I guess I'm just too stupid to understand this
- I read as fast as a toddler,
- Everyone else seems to be doing just fine, so why can't I?"
Recognizing when self-criticism becomes destructive to your self-esteem and motivation is key to mitigating perfectionist tendencies.
Focus on the positive
As a scholar, self-improvement is critical, but if you struggle with perfectionism, take Jody’s advice and “focus on the progress, victories, and positives before assessing ways to improve.” Taking the time to celebrate the positives can help drown out the more disparaging voices in your head.
Check out the blog post On Becoming Elastic: The Role of Resilience in Facing Challenges to learn a 4-step strategy for meeting setbacks and failure with optimism.
Reflect on the big picture
When managing perfectionism, Jody also finds it helpful to reflect on her larger goals: “Will a small setback REALLY impact achievement of the real goal?” she asks herself. It’s unlikely that a slightly lower grade will interfere with your graduation plans, so reflecting on the big picture can help put setbacks into perspective.
If a fear of failure interferes with your enjoyment of the learning process, then try, as Shannon suggests, practicing: “Something drastic like submitting your worst attempt at an assignment can have potential consequences that are risky, so find some safe opportunities to practice failure. Examples might include guessing someone's age (if they're okay with it), attempting a new skill for the first time (such as drawing, painting, or sewing), or applying for a job you think you are unqualified for (especially if you are in a place where you do not currently need a job).” Practicing failure in these safe, small ways emphasizes that setbacks—like getting the wrong answer or struggling with a new skill—are opportunities to learn and improve, rather than catastrophic missteps.
Track your time
Take note of the time you are spending on reading and writing assignments. Shannon suggests asking yourself these questions:
- Is it taking me more than an hour to write just my introduction paragraph?
- Am I finding distractions and other things to do so that I do not have to work on something that is stressing me out?
As Shannon notes, “These are signs that I am too caught up in making sure it is perfect, instead of just doing as well as I can.”
Consider allotting yourself a set amount of time for an assignment, setting a timer, and—when the timer goes off—wrapping-up what you’re working on. You might also try taking a time inventory or tracking your time in a daily journal to better understand which activities are eating up the bulk of your time.
To those who are struggling with the less desirable effects of perfectionism, Jody and Shannon offer these closing words of encouragement:
“Overcoming perfectionism is a learning process. Be gentle. Be kind. The instances in which we are able to lay perfectionism down for a moment are incredibly freeing and liberating. We can still have high standards; we just do not have to adhere to them to the point of self-destruction.”
“Perfectionism is a habit, and habits can be broken. As with all goals, break up your attempt to thwart perfectionism into small, actionable steps and keep working toward it. And remember, if you fail, you can keep trying and reset any time.”