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Combating Perfectionism: A Guide for Students

By Rhea Z on December 29, 2023

As high school students, we are often hit with many responsibilities at once, including courses, grades, and assignments. Managing everything can already be quite overwhelming, but a specific mindset can make life ten times harder: perfectionism.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a mindset that is often associated with obsessing over accomplishments and external success, setting unreasonably high standards, and constantly fearing failure. It is often considered a “double-edged sword” because while it can motivate students to strive for top-quality work, it can also lead to anxiety. In extreme cases, perfectionism can become toxic, causing individuals to avoid failure and fear making mistakes. Everyone is susceptible to perfectionism, however, studies have shown a significant increase in perfectionism among individuals over the past 30 years.

Of course, perfectionism is just the starting point for many dangers. Here is a list of just a few:

  • Procrastination - Delaying work due to a fear of failure
  • Lack of creativity and rigid thinking - Insisting on doing things a certain way to maintain a sense of “perfection”
  • Toxic comparison - Constantly comparing oneself to others and berating oneself for not measuring up to those around them
  • Low self esteem - Excessively focusing on mistakes rather than accomplishments, leading to a decline in confidence
  • An increased risk of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders

Therefore, it is important to identify perfectionism early on and seek ways to strike a balance between hard work and managing stress.

There are three kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially-prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism is the type that is most often portrayed in the media. It is characterized by an unrealistic desire to be flawless, leading individuals to push themselves to unreasonable limits in their pursuit of perfection. On the other hand, other-oriented perfectionism involves imposing unrealistic standards on others. For instance, in a high school chemistry group project, ian other-oriented perfectionist might expect their other group members to produce a university-level lab report. Finally, socially-prescribed perfectionists often believe that others expect them to be flawless, resulting in unrealistic expectations of perfection coming from external sources.

Causes and Symptoms of Perfectionism

The causes of perfectionism may include but are not limited to:

  • Constant internal pressure, often characterized by harsh judgment and self-criticism
  • Academic and professional competition - this may involve constant comparison to others in a highly competitive academic or professional environment
  • Social media - where the rise of the “perfect body shape,” can lead to harmful social comparisons

Signs of perfectionism may include:

  • Agonizing over small details
  • Being overly critical of oneself
  • Creating elaborate “to do” lists
  • Excessively checking work (also known as “ruminating”)
  • Experiencing chronic stress
  • Procrastinating on work out of a fear of failure
  • Setting overly high expectations to the point where they are unachievable
  • Dismissing compliments and forgetting to celebrate success

It’s important to note that many of these symptoms can be associated with other habits or mindsets. Therefore, self-awareness and understanding your tendencies are key to identifying if perfectionism is something you struggle with.

How to Handle Perfectionism

Now that we’ve established that perfectionism has negative effects on people, how should we handle perfectionism? Here are the steps:

1. Acknowledge your Perfectionism

Before delving into useful techniques, it is important to have a better understanding of your perfectionism. Since everyone has different habits and experiences, the path to handling perfectionism may vary for each individual. Acknowledging your perfectionism involves addressing the following questions:

  • Do I exhibit perfectionism?
  • What type of perfectionism do I exhibit (refer back to “What is Perfectionism”)?
  • What symptoms or habits of perfectionism do I have?
  • What are the possible causes of my perfectionism?

Keeping track of the answers to these questions will be helpful later on. Therefore, it may be a good idea to write your responses in a notebook or an online document.

2. Change Perfectionistic Thinking

Since perfectionism is a negative minset, students who experience perfectionism often also have a pessimistic way of thinking. This can include excessively criticizing oneself, fixating on minor details (such as a text font), and a drop in confidence.

To overcome this, several methods can be employed. Firstly, practicing compassionate self-talk can help shed light on your progress and successes instead of fixating on failures. By reminding yourself that making mistakes is okay and that hard work is within your control, you are more likely to adopt a growth mindset and recognize that imperfection is a natural part of the learning process. Practice looking at a big picture, asking questions like “Does this small mistake truly matter?” and “How will this affect me in the long run?” can help you understand that the minor details that you might be constantly looking over may not be worth your time and energy.

3. Overcome Procrastination

Perfectionism is associated with procrastination due to the chronic fear of making mistakes. While overcoming procrastination is beyond the scope of this article, you can check out “How to Stop Procrastinating Right Now” on the Schoolhouse Blog home page for more guidance.

4. Reward yourself!

Don’t forget to celebrate your successes! Make it a habit to reward yourself for all the hard work and progress you have made as a student and an individual. Talk to your family, share your accomplishments with your friends, and always remember to acknowledge yourself!

Overcoming perfectionism can be a challenging process that may take months or even years to fully grasp and manage. Therefore, remember to approach the journey of finding your balance low and slow. You can do it!

Thank you Sharon V for editing this article! peer tutoring, for free.


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