Perfectionism is rampant on college campuses, but because high achievement is something that so many students value, it is difficult to discern the dark underbelly of perfectionism: how it predisposes people to a host of psychiatric disorders (major depression, eating disorders, OCD, OCPD, social anxiety disorder) as well as completed suicides. Perfectionistic individuals feel that what they do is never enough or never good enough. They beat themselves up for falling short of an unrealistic standard. When the A- isn’t good enough; when someone is preoccupied by a small, almost invisible dot on their shirt or blemish on their face; when one needs to be busy and productive at all moments of the day and can’t sit still – these are all signs of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is defined by experts as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” By definition, it is unrealistic, and is different from ambition, drive, or pride in accomplishment, where we realize and achieve our potential Perfectionism is impossible to achieve. The inability to accept flaws, chinks in the armor, or adjustments in one’s specific plan, reflects a loss of perspective. A perfectionist takes their talents for granted and focuses on their shortcomings. This is a double whammy since perfectionists don’t derive pleasure from their successes and obsess about their perceived failures and rejections. Perfectionists are so focused on what they “should” be doing that they often sacrifice their personal happiness. In this way, perfectionism stems from as well as contributes to low self-esteem. It is a toxic cycle that can become a “[self-]hatred that is breathtaking at time.”

A competitive nature underlies perfectionism, whether it is with another person or with oneself, as someone else is always doing something more or something better. A healthy amount of competitiveness is good and beneficial – it can motivate us to do better, run faster, work harder – but not to the point where it becomes so devastating, anxiety-provoking, and detrimental to the person’s well-being.

A multidimensional model outlines perfectionism in terms of the direction of the beliefs and behaviors: whether it’s directed at one’s self, holding unrealistic standards and attaching an irrational importance to perfection for oneself (self-oriented perfectionism); perceiving unrealistic expectations from other people (socially prescribed perfectionism); or imposing unrealistic standards on other people and evaluating them critically (other-oriented perfectionism). Do any of these perfectionist types sound familiar?

In this study, these authors also found that all three types of perfectionism have been increasing from 1989 to 2016. Young people perceive that more demands are placed on them, they in turn are more demanding of others, and more demanding of themselves. Almost 30% of undergrads experience symptoms of depression that are associated with perfectionism. While perfectionism may sound benign, it has an insidious, non-specific effect on mental health. This video does a good job explaining what perfectionism is and how it negatively impacts our well-being.

So, what is the antidote to perfectionism? First recognizing, identifying, and understanding how perfectionism functions in our lives, how it may benefit us and how it may hurt us. Then, the perfectionist must gain self-acceptance and self-compassion. Kristen Neff, associated professor at University of Texas at Austin, discusses the components of self-compassion including kindness and understanding for ourselves; a sense of common humanity; and mindfulness. In learning to accept one’s failures, that may not even be complete failures and instead learning experiences, one can gain perspective and realize all the great aspects about oneself and how much he/she has accomplished. This means finding a way to appreciate who we are, what we have, and what we can achieve rather than whipping, driving, and beating ourselves up. In recognizing and identifying our perfectionism, we realize that our standards are unrealistic and impossibly high, and hopefully learn to accept that we are good enough as we are. “Good enough” – what a concept!   

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