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It’s 4 a.m. and you’re triple-checking the verb tense of a Spanish assignment. You don’t hand in a draft of your English paper because it’s too rough, even though you need your teacher’s feedback. You skip studying for a big math test because unless you can review for three full hours on two straight nights, it’s not worth it.
If this sort of behavior sounds familiar, you might be a perfectionist.
Perfectionism can hurt us
Perfectionism can be much more significant in your life than some other personality quirks are. Research has found that perfectionist tendencies can solidify and grow, leading to behavior patterns that decrease productivity and increase the risk of developing serious conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, other anxiety disorders, and depression.
Perfectionism can also help us excel
But perfectionism is unlike many other health issues. While no good ever comes of tobacco use or driving drunk, perfectionism often boosts performance. LeBron James shot thousands of free throws before he mastered the skill. Pianists toil for years before they are skilled enough to play at Carnegie Hall. Monet set his canvas in the same spot day after day to capture every impression of leaf and sun.
Perfect red flags
But when perfectionism becomes maladaptive—that is, when it hurts more than it helps—it can harm students’ academic performance and personal relationships. “Generally, it’s a red flag when perfectionist efforts seem to be making things worse instead of better,” says Dr. Jesse Crosby, a researcher at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (affiliated with Harvard Medical School), who studies perfectionism.
Joel, a student in Binghamton, New York, says he suffers from anxiety because of his perfectionist approach to grades: “As a result of the anxiety/depression, my grades suffered even more.”
Warning signs for the type of perfectionism that can be harmful (called maladaptive perfectionism) include:
- Avoiding tasks
- Anxiety associated with trying to make everything perfect
- All-or-nothing thinking: “I don’t have time to do it perfectly right now, so I’ll put it off.”
+ Think you might be a perfectionist? Take this quiz to find out.
How people become perfectionists
Perfectionism can represent an emotional struggle. “Perfectionists have an emotional conviction that in order to be acceptable as a person, they need to be perfect,” says Dr. Tom Greenspon, a psychologist and author of Moving Past Perfect (Free Spirit Publishing, 2012).
The origins of that struggle might be genetic, research suggests. In a 2012 study, identical twins rated much more similarly than fraternal twins did for perfectionism and anxiety. But perfectionist tendencies, like other behaviors, are also shaped by our environment. You don’t “catch” perfectionism. Instead, your psyche, your lifestyle, and your surroundings help determine whether you gravitate toward it.
For example, a competitive academic atmosphere might prompt students to set unrealistic standards for their work. Mary*, a freshman in Brooklyn, New York, says, “I am very hard on myself about grades and always feel like I need to get 100 on everything I do.” Another trigger for perfectionist behavior is vague syllabi and assignments, which give students room to expect more from themselves than teachers do.
Strategies to keep perfectionism under control
There’s more to perfectionism than your environment. Students, parents, and teachers can use certain strategies to avoid the harmful effects of procrastination, says Dr. Crosby. “Alleviate the pressure by remembering perfection is not the goal; it really is whether that person did their best at a certain task instead of trying to be ‘perfect,’” says Simon, a junior in Indianapolis, Indiana.
1. Chunk your projects
Teachers can break large projects—such as a 10-page research paper—into smaller pieces to be submitted periodically. Ask your teachers to consider this approach.
- Week 1: the topic and research questions.
- Week 2: an initial list of sources. Week 3: an outline.
- Week 4: a draft.
- Week 5: the final paper.
2. “Crack the door” on tasks
Completing even a small part of a project creates momentum and helps lessen fears that a given task is too complex or difficult.
Teachers can “crack the door” by collaborating with students on the first homework question, or by setting aside class time to help students structure a research strategy. Alternatively, get together with classmates to make the first steps of your homework assignment a collaboration.
3. Be flexible and prioritize
Take a flexible approach to reading assignments and other tasks. If you’re burning the midnight oil to take meticulous notes on an optional reading assignment, your standards may be too high. To cope with a heavy workload, Dr. Crosby says, “Prioritize.” Just like ER staff must stop the bleeding before they treat the headache, students can distinguish between tasks that need heavy attention and those that simply aren’t so important.
4. Remember that improvement, not total mastery, is the goal
“If something is on the syllabus, you’re not expected to know everything about it before you take the course or even afterwards,” says Dr. Crosby.
* Name changed for privacy
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (Hazelden, 2010)
Jesse M. Crosby, PhD, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts, and Harvard Medical School.
Tom Greenspon, PhD, author of Moving Past Perfect (Free Spirit Publishing, 2012).
Anxiety BC. (n.d.). How to overcome perfectionism. Retrieved from anxietybc.com/sites/default/files/Perfectionism.pdf
Moser, J. S., Slane, J. D., Burt, S. A., & Klump, K. L. (2012). Etiologic relationships between anxiety and dimensions of maladaptive perfectionism in young adult female twins. Depression and Anxiety, 29(1), 47–53.
McLean Hospital. (n.d.). Obsessive compulsive disorder institute. Retrieved from https://www.mcleanhospital.org /programs/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-institute
Transition Year. (2012). The basics: Anxiety disorders. The Jed Foundation and the American Psychiatric Foundation. Retrieved from transitionyear.org/student/articles.php?cat=5&id=5
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2007). Perfectionism. Retrieved from www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/self-help-brochures/academic-difficulties/perfectionism