Perfectionism: Why Being Perfect Isn’t All It’s Chalked Up To Be

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Alessandra Gardner, Staff Writer

When thinking about perfectionism, what crosses your mind? Whether it’s an academic adversary who always seems to be on top of things, or your overly stressed and anxiety ridden friend, there is one major lesson to learn: perfectionism can take many forms, never revolving in the space of black and white. There are many ways perfectionism can manifest, resulting in just as many ways to deal with and diminish it. Several approaches have developed to gain awareness and control over these tendencies, bringing forth a fountain of new information on what is now being understood to be increasingly common amongst people. 

It is important to understand that there are many branches of perfectionism, the three most recognized being Personal Standard, Self Critical, and Socially Prescribed. Personal Standard tends to be relatively healthy as long as the person is motivated and maintains healthy goals. People who are Self Critical have been found to be noticeably more stress and anxiety ridden, for it causes the person to think whatever they do isn’t good enough. This causes work and life to not get done, interfering with people’s everyday and long term lives. Lastly, Socially Prescribed perfectionism is most commonly found in adults, and results in high standards produced by high pressure jobs. This causes negative thoughts like self harm, along with the more common stress and anxiety. 

In order to learn more about perfectionism in students, I interviewed three Sandy Spring Friends School students. Alex, a freshman at SSFS who identifies as a perfectionist, clarifies that “It’s kinda hard to break the habit considering it leads to good results in terms of grades, although it can affect your mental health in negative ways. And then you become sheltered by it, and you feel that if you stopped, your grades would reap the consequences.” He explains, “I normally don’t cope with perfectionism, I just suffer.” Here is where an important question comes in: If students are getting good grades as a result from their perfectionistic tendencies, how are they supposed to know if there is a problem? Dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety for short periods of time may seem endurable if you can get an A+, but the long term effects of prolonged pressure can be damaging. This can affect students’ and everyday people’s social lives, sleep patterns, and overall mental health and self esteem. Perfectionism can alienate people to what it is like to relax and enjoy life, forcing one to stress about incoming assignments, and causing you to worry if what you ever do is ever good enough. It can oftentimes be hard to tell the difference between wanting to do well in school and working hard, versus perfectionism. With the way academic and work systems are shaped today, how is one supposed to tell the difference between the two? 

While perfectionism can be a good thing at times–helping you to get ahead in school and life–,the darker aspects of this trait that have been thought to be beneficial have not been broadcasted to the public in the amount that was needed. Recent studies have shown negative effects that tend to outweigh the good. Dr. Brené Brown, a social work research professor at the University of Houston, explains that, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” She believes it to be more of a way for people to cope and protect themselves from failure. Something that is important to realize is that perfectionism is not constantly present in some people; it can surface when an important assignment is due, and then seem to disappear after it has been turned in. While almost all people deal with some form of perfectionism at least once throughout their lives, it isn’t chronic for everyone. A study conducted by Dr. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill tested over 40,000 college students in the United States, Canada, and Britain. The study evaluated the three manifestations of perfectionism– “self oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented,”–showing that from 1980 to 2016, perfectionism had overall, increased by 59%. The two conductors of this study stated that perfectionism was “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others,” and that “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life.” The amount of work and expectations being imposed upon students–especially throughout high school and college–is immense. Dr. Curran and Hill highlight how “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”  

Perfectionism doesn’t always result in getting work done. In actuality, the constant worry of not being good enough can result in procrastination! The terror of failing, not living up to expectations, and the act of working in general can cause people to put off they’re assignments, as well as short and long term goals. Feeling like your life isn’t going anywhere, or as if you have many dreams or goals that will never be achieved can be results of perfectionism and procrastination. This double faced trait can lead to a lack of achievement that can cause deep personal ruts, possibly leading to forms of depression. Perfectionism doesn’t just instigate overworking, but encourages underworking.      

There are many factors that can lead to perfectionism, with some of the most common being Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), high personal and external standards or expectations, along with severely stressful environments. As it turns out, role models and family members have been found to be playing a part. Mentors, relatives, and revered individuals who are looked up to in life can have perfectionistic tendencies too, resulting in an unhealthy standard put upon the people who view them as examples to live by. Oftentimes, the extreme pressure imposed upon people by family members, colleagues, and peers can give birth to this trait as well. “Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by high expectations and standards,” states Psychology Today. However, it is important to note that this quite common trait in human beings is not always due to trying situations in school. Relationships, sports teams, jobs, as well as things as simple as your physical and mental appearance can be triggers throughout your, and others everyday lives. 

Fear is another one of the key variables that plays into perfectionism, coming in many varying forms. If you find yourself  dealing with constant anxiety over making mistakes, failing, external disapproval, and the most obvious, not being good enough, there is a high chance that it goes a little deeper than just wanting to do well in your school or job. It can be difficult to break a cycle or routine that has been taking place for a long time, even more so when hard work is rewarded, such as with good grades and appraisal. Alice Boyes, author of the books The Healthy Mind Toolkit and Anxiety Toolkit, recommends “rechanneling a strength of yours rather than aiming for a lower goal,” when trying to deal with perfectionism. She recommends taking “some of the pressure off yourself.” Boyes explains that assessing your mindset along with realizing that sometimes you’ll be “less perfect about some things, so you can concentrate on what’s important.” Instead of spending many hours focusing on miniscule details for a project, do what you deem the most pressing and then either go back to that project, or turn it in, knowing that it is GOOD ENOUGH. There is no such thing as being perfect; it is impossible! 

When dealing with an overwhelming amount of trepidation with your work, sometimes it can feel as if one is stuck in a rut. Gus, a junior at SSFS, mentions that when he notices himself unable to stop working, “I take a step back and take a breath in and just let it sit for a day, and then look at it and be like, yeah, this is OK, this is fine. You know you gotta just take a step back and admire it, and be happy with what you got.” This is an important asset to acquire, for it will help people throughout their lives. Taking time to step outside of stress and anxiety is a simple way to try out the act of  mindfulness, a practice that has been shown to help curb stress and anxiety. Noticing emotions that come up in perfectionistic situations and not shying away from them is also a great way to begin the journey of gaining awareness. Useful techniques can be things like meditation–which can come in many different forms–, along with certain breathing techniques. Finding a therapist that you connect with, attending group therapy, or talking to people who are in the same boat as you are, can also be ways to grapple with perfectionism.   

Another important message was conveyed by an SSFS senior, who experienced her own burgeoning difficulties with the amount of work in high school. Joce elucidates about how, “ I don’t let my schoolwork push me to places it shouldn’t be allowed to. But that’s easier said than done! Freshman year I would consistently push the limits of my anxiety to the point I had multiple panic attacks at school.” She explained that “to a certain degree I had to learn that I didn’t deserve that and relearn my way of schooling. There are lots of practices I had to put in place like saying “no” when I needed, getting rest and time management. But the most important thing is just listening to myself! When I can’t, I don’t!” Adding that, “When I notice I am trying hard for the wrong reasons (for perfection instead of passion) I remind myself that everyone is human, and perfection isn’t real! I can’t be perfect, and neither can my peers. I don’t hold others to that standard and so I shouldn’t hold myself to that impossible standard!” 

Last but not least, speaking from my personal experience with perfectionism, anxiety, and an always ever looming cloud of stress, it is imperative to be aware of several tips. Realize that failure is a part of life, and that human beings learn and grow from it. Preventing goals, dreams, work, and more from happening because of the fear of failing will result in more damage to you in the long run! The scariest part is sometimes taking the first step towards your goal, and that can usually walk hand in hand with asking for help, which is OKAY. There are ways to regulate, understand, and live with any variation of perfectionism, anxiety, and stress: the processes are just different for every person. They will take persistence and practice; but anything is achievable with the right amount of dedication, awareness, and the general desire to get better.