Students may experience extreme pressure and stress due to the desire to perform well in school and/or with their extracurricular activities. Having high expectations for themselves can be advantageous as it may reflect their motivation and work ethic, as well as shine light on their goals and ambitions.
On the other hand, perfectionists can be distinguished as individuals who have extremely high standards that are impossible or difficult to meet, such as making absolutely no mistakes or the need to perform the best. This can lead students who strive to be perfect to experience impairing distress and anxiety.
Striving for perfectionism may actually be detrimental to a student’s performance. Students who are perfectionists may not end up finishing their assignments in a timely manner due to spending too much of their time trying to make their work perfect or avoiding any mistakes, trying to improve what they have completed already, or simply trying to be the best. Other perfectionists may end up avoiding their work through procrastination as a way to temporarily deal with their anxiety or stress from needing to do things perfectly. Some individuals will run out of time due to the procrastination, while others may simply avoid the work all together out of the belief that their work is not good enough and will not be perfect so “what is the point?”
Here are some ways students can start fighting their perfectionism bully and challenging those bully questions:
- Staying present and mindful in the moment of the task at hand, instead of thinking of the mistakes or becoming overwhelmed with the future. For instance, instead of beating yourself up about not getting a perfect grade on last week’s test, focus on what is going on in the moment and around you such as having lunch with your friends. This does not mean pushing away the disappointment; rather, you are letting it be and choosing to direct your attention to something else. This beats perfectionism as you are actively directing your mind to focus on what is going on around you, rather than putting your attention towards needing to be perfect.
- Instead of focusing on one particular future expectation, refocus to looking at the bigger picture and the direction in which you want to move towards in life. For instance, instead of stressing out about one exam and thinking that it will define your future, think about what you enjoy and what that means to you as that is more reflective of who you are and what you can accomplish.
- Reframe your perfectionistic and rigid thoughts to more realistic thinking. Identify your distorted thinking. Are you catastrophizing things (e.g., “If I stutter during my presentation, I will fail this assignment and this class and I will never be able to get into my dream school”)? Are you only thinking of things as black and white, or all-or-nothing (e.g., “It does not matter that I am doing well in this class; if I do not get a perfect grade, I am dumb”). Once you are able to identify these types of thought patterns, reflect on the thoughts and ask yourself if they are true and realistic reflections of yourself. Then rephrase your thought to something more realistic, not the opposite. For instance, “if I stutter during my presentation, it might be embarrassing… however; I know that it will not sabotage my future”.
- With this bigger picture in mind, ask yourself what you are willing to negotiate in order to attain these realistic goals. Creating more realistic and balanced goals, while beating your perfectionism bully will take effort. That means selecting a goal that you can actually achieve. REMEMBER: this does not mean lowering your standards, nor giving up! It might mean you will just focus on passing your final exams with A’s and B’s instead of getting perfect marks on all of them.
- One way to keep standards high and to avoid being a perfectionist is to create a pros and cons list for Lowering Your Standards. Ask yourself: “What do I gain from lowering these standards” and “what do I lose from lowering these standards?” Then create a pros and cons list for Being a Perfectionist. Ask yourself: “What do I gain from striving to be perfect” and “what do I lose from striving to be perfect?” The responses for both lists may surprise you and may provide you with new insight.
- Lastly, be kind to yourself by taking care of yourself! Beating perfectionism is challenging on top of handling the other stressors of your school and personal life. You may forget to take care of yourself through the process of following what your perfectionist-bully tells you that you should do, and through that process, you may start to lose who you really are. You are a strong and resilient individual!