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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 honours 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. Self-imposed pressure can get in the way of a happy life, and that’s so 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, Registered Psychologist and Associate Professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
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. “When I have time to do an assignment (let’s say a week before the due date), it’ll take me hours just to write a paragraph. Similarly, when I have to design a poster for a school club, it may take me an exorbitant amount of time just to follow through with a design. Perfectionism can be so debilitating, even when you aren’t under pressure,” says Luis P.*, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
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. “[It] can stifle creativity, alienate you from others (particularly when spontaneous opportunities arise), limit your experiences, and hurt performance when instructions or expectations change in a project,” says Dr. Danielle Molnar, Assistant Professor at Brock University in Ontario, Social and Personality Psychologist, and researcher on perfectionism.
Psychological flexibility is associated with positive mental health, according to 2010 research in Positive Clinical Psychology. “Better outcomes and greater happiness tend to result when students learn to become adaptable,” says Dr. Gordon Flett, Professor of Psychology and Canada Research Chair at York University in Ontario.
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 complete 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-, or even 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 behaviours 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 Canadian 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. 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
A 2012 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that perfectionism, and the behaviours that go along with it, is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, which, for some, can lead to the development of disordered eating.
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 post-secondary 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. “It’s important to have an adaptive way of appraising effort. Understand that having to exert effort is typical and not a sign of a lack of ability or intelligence,” says Dr. Flett.
2. Change the conversation
It’s not uncommon to come across people who brag about doing well, especially in the high-pressure world of academia. 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. “Realize that the people you’re comparing yourself with have likely presented a highly idealized version of themselves,” says Dr. Flett. “It can help to learn about the life stories of famous, accomplished people who didn’t succeed at first or who were told they were inadequate by others—e.g., J.K. Rowling having the Harry Potter books refused by many publishers, Oprah being fired from her first job, or Thomas Edison having severe learning problems in school.”
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 many missteps it takes to get where you want to go, a Princeton professor created this nontraditional resumé.
3. Make a mistake on purpose
Yup, we went there. So much of perfectionism is about this fear of making a wrong move. Face the fear head-on by making a few intentional and noncritical errors here and there. “Famous psychologist Albert Ellis sometimes asked his perfectionistic patients to have a day filled with errors they made so they could see that making a mistake was not the end of the world—and wouldn’t automatically result in disapproval or criticism of others,” says Dr. Flett. Psychologists call this exposure therapy. (We 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. This is a behaviour 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 counsellor or therapist at your school or in your community. “Perfectionism is deeply embedded into a person’s identity,” says Dr. Molnar. “Consequently, perfectionism is often difficult to treat because individuals who identify as perfectionists often feel like they’ll give up who they are if they give up their perfectionism.”
“Asking for help is essentially interpreted as having to admit that they’re not perfect—so distress and unhappiness is hidden behind a front,” Dr. Flett says. “It’s important to get help if it’s needed and not stigmatize yourself by seeing asking for help as a sign of weakness—it isn’t.”
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 behavioural 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 behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapy that teaches you how to transform unhealthy, negative thoughts into positive thoughts and behaviours.
Visit or call your counselling centre to chat with a therapist, or use this tool from Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) for help finding one in your area.
*Student name has been changed for privacy
First-year graduate student, University of Windsor, Ontario
“MindShift focuses on addressing a variety of mental health issues through quick surveys to assess yourself, explanations of various mental illnesses, and methods to help alleviate symptoms. One of the tools contained within this app is ‘Letting go of perfectionism,’ which aids with alleviating anxiety resulting from perfectionism. The process of assessing your symptoms involves checking/unchecking boxes referring to specific symptoms you may be experiencing. It allows for a form of self-assessment to better understand if this is truly what you’re struggling with.”
I consider myself to be a situational perfectionist. If it’s an area I’m really passionate about, I spend a lot of effort working to make the work/project I’m completing be the best possible quality. It’s pretty difficult to say that an app could rewire my brain to not function the way it has for the majority of my life, but I could definitely see it being useful when the perfectionism leads to other issues such as anxiety attacks. That said, during an anxious period, my first reaction probably won’t be to reach for my phone.
This app follows a very straightforward process to assess your symptoms and offers aid through various exercises and thought processes to help you work through a given situation (e.g., struggling with perfectionism on an assignment). It’s difficult to classify this app as particularly fun, but I don’t believe that’s the purpose!
Through the variety of exercises this app offers, it’s effective and allows for many methods to treat anxiety in a well-designed format. Guided exercises (video or audio) could have made this more effective however.
Get help or find out more
Keith J. Anderson, PhD, Registered Psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
Gordon L. Flett, PhD, Researcher and Professor of Psychology, York University, Ontario.
Danielle Molnar, PhD, Social/Personality Psychologist; Assistant Professor, Department of Child and Youth Services; Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, Brock University, Ontario.
Simon B. Sherry, PhD, Registered Psychologist, Researcher, and Associate Professor, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.
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