IPFW/Parkview Student Assistance Program

Self Help - Useful Articles

Perfectionism: Don't Let it Get in Your Way

If you are a perfectionist, you are often your own worst enemy. You must do everything correctly. You must be right. You must work harder than everyone else. You must get an “A” on an assignment or exam. You see things as black and white. You either succeed 100% or you consider yourself a failure. And then when you do succeed, you raise your own bar higher.

If you are recognizing yourself as a perfectionist, you know you are very hard on yourself. This leads to constant worry about doing things right. You second guess–“I could have done more,” “I should have been better”. Nothing is ever enough. If it can’t be perfect, then it’s not even worth doing. You spend every minute preparing for an exam, an athletic event, or making sure your presentation is  better than anyone else’s.  It is hard to relax.  It is hard for you to find balance. It is not the healthy pursuit of excellence.

Here are some of the causes and characteristics of perfectionism:

  • All or nothing thinking: Everything is black or white, with no gray areas, and no flaws are allowed.
  • Self-worth is based on your achievements: this is a maladaptive belief about how you are valued and it only leads to insecurity.
  • Fear of failure and rejection: The fear of being rejected for not being perfect can cause you to be paralyzed or unable to perform at all. Ever hear of “writer’s block”?
  • Low self esteem: You never feel good enough about yourself or your performance, and feel like a failure. You can be blinded by your need for love and approval, making you oblivious to the needs and wishes of others.

The Cost of Perfectionism:

  • Guilt and depression: Knowing that it is impossible to reach your ideals, you become depressed and feel a sense of shame and guilt for not attaining your goals. You may even have suicidal thoughts.
  • Lack of motivation: You may totally give up and avoid new experiences or projects because it is so discouraging–“if I can’t do it perfectly, why bother?”
  • Obsessive or compulsive behavior: You may become overly focused on details or rules, order, structure etc. If you feel like a loser you may self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food, sex or gambling. You may develop an eating disorder.
  • Extreme determination: You are determined to overcome all obstacles to achieve results, focusing only on the results of your efforts. It often creates overwhelming anxiety and sabotages your work.
  • Fear of success: It is a heavy burden to keep up the façade of being successful at all times.
  • Relationship costs: You may be an impatient, frustrated or angry person with a rigid need to “get things done”. You may become inflexible. You may be defensive when criticized. This could drive people away, leaving you lonely.
  • Performance anxiety, test anxiety, social anxiety: Enough said. Anxiety becomes infectious.

There is a Difference Between High Achievers and Perfectionists: 

Both do their best to succeed and perform well. However, high achievers accept that making mistakes and risking failure is a part of being human, and they bounce back from disappointment quickly and with energy. They see mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning. They have drive, but are not driven.

Those who strive for excellence in a healthy way take pleasure in the process. They can contain their anxiety and fear of disapproval within bounds, and use them to create energy. They learn from mistakes, and are not disabled by anxiety and fear of failure. They also react positively to constructive feedback.

Coping Strategies:

  • Identify your thoughts regarding a need to be perfect and challenge them. What will really happen if you get a lower grade on an assignment? Will the world come to an end? Will you lose your friends? Will people laugh at you? Will it change the course of your life? Who says you must be perfect?
  • Become aware of your self-critical thoughts. Learn to be kind and gentle with yourself. Reward yourself for your efforts, not the result. Acknowledge the good parts of a performance or project.
  • Practice being realistic. Pace yourself. Set goals that are achievable. If it is an athletic even, try doing it for fun. Tone down the intensity.
  • Set time limits on your projects and prioritize your efforts. Let’s say it is the week of midterms. What are the most important things to do? Give yourself 3 hours to work on a sociology paper, x hours to study biology, and a strict time for bed. When the time is up, move on. This reduces the likelihood of procrastination.
  • Learn how to deal with criticism. Work on being more objective (judge the project not the person) and remember you have a right to make mistakes.
  • Remind yourself that most judgments are subjective. See criticism as “constructive feedback”, and another way to learn.

If you need help to deal with issues like perfectionism or the anxiety it creates, contact your Student Assistance Counseling Program at 266-8060. It doesn’t cost you anything to get the support and guidance you may need.