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Being a person can be complicated. Being a perfectionistic person can be even more complicated. Those standards of yours? They’re so high you can’t see the top of them. It’s either perfect or it’s a problem. It sounds like a surefire way to succeed—as an honors student, in your top-of-the-industry internship, or at being the best in pretty much everything, right? Not really—because there’s a catch. Seeking unattainable perfection, and striving to avoid mistakes, equals serious stress—and that can cause problems with your health and academic performance.
We’re here to help—and so are our experts. We’ll break down the perfectionist basics and give you actionable, evidence-based tips for setting more realistic standards for yourself. Because self-imposed pressure can get in the way of a happy life. And that’s not OK. You ready?
What perfectionism is…and isn’t
Most of us are looking to do our best and are willing to put in the work to get there. So how can you tell when you’re being conscientious and when your drive to succeed is getting in your way? Wanting to be perfect is only part of it. The defining characteristic is a fear of making mistakes—and how you feel about yourself along the way, according to research by Dr. Thomas Greenspon published in Psychology in the Schools (2014).
“Hallmarks of perfectionism include an exaggerated concern over mistakes, lofty and unrealistic self-expectations, harsh and intense self-criticism, feeling other people need you to be perfect, and nagging doubts about performance abilities,” says Dr. Simon Sherry, a registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
To make it more complicated, perfectionism looks different for everyone. But it comes from the same place, says Dr. Greenspon, and it often accompanies some less-than-great feelings about yourself and a troubling sense of hopelessness.
Here’s what perfectionism might look (and feel) like
Feeling less than Those who struggle with perfectionism often feel that they’re not good enough, according to Greenspon’s research, even if they never say it out loud. If they do happen to make some mistakes, perfectionistic people are likely to take that personally. Their slip-ups become reflections of themselves as people, not just of their performance or achievement. Every mistake feels like a character flaw, which increases the pressure to be exceptional and the despair when they mess up. “Anytime I am trying something new, I put a lot of pressure on myself, causing me to feel extremely inadequate with any sort of mistake I make in the process,” says Erin S.*, a first-year student at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.
Setting rigid rules Look, we all have to set some structure for ourselves, or else we’d end up in Netflix-land permanently. But perfectionistic people take that rule-setting to an extreme, one that can get in the way of daily functioning. This intense structure can lead to other stressful and time-consuming habits, such as over-checking work to excess or missing deadlines, according to research published in 2016 in JMIR Research Protocols.
Being inflexible Say your roommate wants to take a spontaneous hiking trip or your go-to spot in the library is taken. Those curveballs can be a problem for someone who’s dealing with perfectionism—they struggle to go with the flow. Their tried-and-true problem-solving method works for them, but only under certain circumstances. This inflexibility can be limiting and may also be a sign that something is off. Flexibility is an indicator of positive mental health, says Dr. Sarah Vinson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Georgia.
Procrastinating on assignments People struggling with perfectionism are often totally consumed with making sure that every last detail is perfect. While some may be horrified by the idea of missing a deadline, others might finish tests late, hand in assignments past deadline, or never finish them at all, according to the 2014 study published in Psychology in the Schools. Seem counterintuitive? Only at first glance. If you’re striving for a standard that you can’t hit, you’ll never fully be finished with a task. For some, this might mean spending too much time double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking work until deadlines have long passed. For others, the idea of handing in something that is “imperfect” is worse than handing in nothing at all. “It might feel easier to say you ran out of time than to admit that you couldn’t do it as perfectly as you wanted,” explains Dr. Keith Anderson, staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
How perfectionism can get in the way
Perfectionism is no joke, and neither are the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that go along with it. It’s linked with burnout, which can zap your motivation, wipe you out, and keep you from doing your best. A meta-analysis of 43 studies found that those who struggled with “perfectionist concerns,” or being worried about making mistakes, feeling like there’s a big difference between their standards and their performance, or being concerned about looking imperfect in front of others, experienced increased feelings of burnout (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2016).
Some people who struggle with perfectionism may also struggle with mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association. And those can be serious. Some potential effects of the pressure to be perfect include:
Being perfectionistic makes you more vulnerable to anxiety, says Dr. Sherry. And the research backs this up. Feeling that mistakes make you inadequate can result in anxiety and shame, according to Greenspon’s research.
Increased suicide risk
Perfectionism is linked to an increased risk of suicide, according to a 2014 article in the Review of General Psychology.
Body image issues
Perfectionism, and the behaviors that go along with it, is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, which, for some, can lead to the development of disordered eating, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders.
What you can do about it
It’s OK if you see yourself or your habits in some of this. In fact, the first step to challenging perfectionistic tendencies is to recognize that they’re there, so high five for self-awareness. If you’re ready to push back against your fear of making mistakes, here are four things you can try.
1. Think process, not results
You’re in college to learn, not churn out flawless papers and perfect scores, and that means being an active part of the analytical process. Rather than focusing on how you’re doing (i.e., your performance), try focusing more on what you’re learning and stay engaged with the material, knowing that making mistakes is often critical in deepening your understanding. “Part of the college experience is learning to think independently and see things on a conceptual basis, and that’s hard to do if you’re so focused on getting every detail right all the time,” Dr. Vinson says.
2. Change the conversation
“In high-pressure academic environments, there’s this culture of [competition around] who works the hardest. People brag about doing really well,” Dr. Vinson says. This can lead to an intense atmosphere that fuels perfectionistic traits and keeps you quiet when your experience differs from the stories you’re hearing. So tell a different story.
Try it: Talk openly with friends about the work you’re putting in, where you’re struggling, and the mistakes you’re making. Feeling anxious about an assignment that you didn’t do well on? Your roommate probably has similar stories. The more of those you hear, the more you realize that we’re all making mistakes, and that doesn’t make us less worthy.
To prevent people from attributing their shortcomings to personal flaws, and to draw attention to how much failure it takes to get where you want to go, a Princeton professor created a nontraditional résumé.
3. Make a mistake on purpose
Yup, we went there. So much of perfectionism is about this fear of making a wrong move. And one way to deal with fear is to face it head-on—by making a few intentional and noncritical errors here and there, according to a guide to perfectionism created by Dr. Glenn Hirsch, director of student counseling services at the University of Minnesota. Psychologists call this exposure therapy. (The rest of us call it courageously superhuman.)
Try it: Keep your intentional slip-ups small: Wear your t-shirt with the bleach stain on it to grab pizza with friends. Be a few minutes late to a club meeting. Send an email with an intentional grammatical error. Once you see that making mistakes doesn’t mean instant catastrophe, you might be able to ease up on the pressure you put on yourself. And that can be liberating.
4. Commit to cutting back—just a little
When you’re deep in perfectionistic territory, you’re triple-checking your triple-checks, rereading a two-line email for two hours, or putting in a crushing amount of study time for a five-question quiz. One way to work against this is to cut back in tiny ways over time rather than trying to stop your perfectionistic patterns all at once, suggests Dr. Hirsch. This is a behavior change staple because it works.
Try it: Take your eight-hour window of quiz-studying to six—and then stick to it. Maybe next time, knock it down to five. Pay attention to how you feel as you’re making the adjustments and see how that changes over time. The point isn’t to lower your standards, but instead to get them to a point that feels less soul-crushing and more realistic.
If you’re still struggling, that’s OK
If you’re feeling bogged down by perfectionism, reach out to a counselor or therapist at your school or in your community. Because perfectionistic people have a hard time admitting when they’re not feeling perfect, this may not feel easy. But it’s so worth a try. Dr. Greenspon describes moving past perfectionism as a recovery process, one that involves adjusting your worldview and sense of reality. Let’s be real: This is a big shift. It takes some work and time to rebuild your sense of yourself independent from pure achievement. Here are some treatment options to talk through with a professional.
Radically open-dialectical behavioral therapy (RO-DBT): RO-DBT is a therapy for people who struggle with “emotional over-control” that teaches strategies to increase flexibility, openness, and communication in social situations, according to research published in 2015 in the American Journal of Psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapy that teaches you how to transform unhealthy, negative thoughts into positive thoughts and behaviors.
Visit or call your counseling center to chat with a therapist, or use this tool from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for help finding one in your area.
*Student name has been changed for privacy
Third-year undergraduate, University of Central Arkansas
“Perfectionism is a word I never thought I’d associate myself with. However, this app helped me understand the term better, which helped me recognize that I am a perfectionist to an extent. Using the six steps given, I was supplied nice, calming thoughts to read when I needed it, as well as examples of exercises I can do to calm myself down. These tips are based on the research of the Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia, a nonprofit dedicated to improving mental health and reducing stigma surrounding anxiety and its related disorders. It’s great having all this information in the privacy of your own home, right at your fingertips.”
There’s always that one assignment you can’t stop reviewing. Or maybe you’re like me and every email or message must be checked and rechecked…so much that it might even take a day to send! The exercises helped calm me down.
The app isn’t really “fun” per se, unless you consider reading fun, which I do! There were also recordings of how to do the exercises, which was helpful. If you’re not used to listening to recordings, there will probably be a chuckle or two the first time!
For the first time, I sent an email without checking it more than twice. I still need to work on it, but I’ve eliminated the rewrites after rewrites! The app has helped me worry less about the smallest flaws.
Get help or find out more
Keith J. Anderson, PhD, registered psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
Simon B. Sherry, PhD, registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Sarah Vinson, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist; assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia.
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