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The Problem with Perfectionism at University

Published Monday, 07 April, 2014 by Amy Murnan

Everyone knows that person. That person who, in some magical way, achieves exactly what they want to achieve, when they want to achieve it. Maybe it’s a friend, family member, someone you love or someone you hate. It could even be you.

If this sounds familiar, you might think you are dealing with a perfectionist; someone who cannot accept anything but the best, who is always working, studying and striving. They can motivate themselves, stop procrastinating, stick to revision schedules and many other skills students often yearn to be able to do. From this perspective it seems like perfectionists are, well…perfect.

But Google the phrase ‘perfectionism at university’ and you’ll soon get a different perspective on what a perfectionist really is. It seems that every university in the country provides counselling on the subject and – unsurprisingly – it’s the highest ranked institutions in the country that appear first. Not only does this suggest that perfectionism is common amongst students, but it suggests that perfectionism might be a negative trait that causes other problems in the student population.

This sounds ridiculous. How could all that drive possibly get in the way? Well, according to the University of Exeter it is a double-edged sword – on one hand it can spur you on, but on the other failures and setbacks are much harder to deal with. In fact, some psychologists, including Dr. Tom Greenspon, believe that often people succeed in spite of perfectionism rather than because of it. They state that perfectionism can lead to anxiety, depression, fear of failure, lack of self-confidence and other debilitating emotional issues. For this reason you might find that it isn’t the people who succeed and are happy that are perfectionists, but the ones who don’t appreciate their successes, or can’t even begin to work at all. Procrastination is not just a symptom of being a student – in certain circumstances it can also be a sign that you are placing yourself under too much pressure.

So, if you find yourself struggling with work this Spring, it might be worth considering whether you are suffering from the unhealthy kind of perfectionism. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you think being perfect is possible?

Most people will immediately answer ‘no’ to this. However, just because really you know it isn’t possible doesn’t mean that you act on this belief. Everyone knows there is no one perfect essay, interview or performance, but it doesn’t stop people from trying to achieve it anyway. This will inevitably set you up for a fall. Instead, learn how to set realistic goals.

Do you beat yourself up when you make mistakes?

‘Should’, ‘would’ and ‘could’ – productivity’s worst enemies. Nothing is gained from beating yourself up over something that wasn’t quite right. Often people feel that this will motivate them to do better next time, but in reality it just makes you feel bad about yourself. Learning how to turn mistakes into opportunities is far preferable.

Do you celebrate your achievements?

Perfectionists are often fixated on details – little things that, to most people, seem inconsequential. This can prevent them from enjoying their successes, instead causing them to view them as normal or standard rather than special, or to be self-critical. If you think you do this, take a look at some ways you can celebrate your successes, however small.

Do others express disbelief at your goals, workload or expectations?

Listening to what others have to say about you may reveal that you put more pressure on yourself than most people – and not always with good outcomes. If you think you might be thinking like a perfectionist, ask yourself what your best friend or role model would say.

Do you avoid getting advice or criticism from others?

If you find you are bad at taking criticism, defensive or argumentative about how you do things, you may be doing so because you find it hard to hear that you have done anything wrong. A lot of the time this is completely natural, but if it is stopping you from using this valuable opportunity to improve then your desire to succeed may actually be impeding your success. Try learning how to accept and use criticism to your best advantage – this is something that everyone, even non-perfectionists, will benefit from.

For a more extensive guide on dealing with perfectionism, click here. If you are affected by any mental health issues, find your University counselling service or talk to your GP.

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