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Overcoming Challenges in Perfectionism

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perfectionismAs college students are entering their campuses either for the first time or returning back to their post-secondary aspirations, recent studies are confirming that young people are embracing more perfectionistic tendencies within the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom than ever before. With collected data from over 41,000 college students on the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, three areas of perfectionism were highlighted to be impacting students’ mood and behavior overall. Among its 44 items, are statements like these:

  • When I am working on something, I can’t relax unless it’s perfect.
  • The people around me expect me to succeed at everything I do.
  • The better I do, the better I am expected to do.

Psychiatrist David Burns defined perfectionism as people “whose standards are high beyond reach or reason and who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.” In this sense, the personal drive to excel can actually become a hindrance to performance. Based upon this research, perfectionism has three main streams that tend to flow into day-to-day life activities: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-prescribed.

  • Self-oriented individuals typically think about his or her position of influence, power, prestige, and how to maintain measures of control within the workplace. These individuals maintain a certain inflexibility and resounding contrast to the demands of everyday tasks and relationships.
  • Other-oriented individuals desire for tasks, objectives, goals, and desires to become fulfilled by others as they see these to be performed by them. These individuals demonstrate levels of hostility in relational aggression toward others when performance outcomes are not met according to their standard.
  • Socially-prescribed individuals desire to be altogether perfect and will receive criticism and negative evaluation by others, placing them at a disadvantage to personally navigate overall.

Currently, these three features of perfectionism blend together within a multidimensional lens of its manifestation for an individual: perfectionistic individuals have standards and expectations that are either very difficult or impossible to meet, these standards are set high and hinder performance outcomes, and perfectionism has positive associations with depression and anxiety alongside of other mental health circumstances with substantial clinical evidence related to eating disorders and sleep concerns with insomnia and early death.


What are some of the antidotes to perfectionism?

  • Self-Compassion: Instead of being self-critical and negatively evaluating ourselves, it becomes imperative to acknowledge the pains of any suffering, failure, or feeling inadequate
  • Mindfulness: Rather than being caught up with overt negativity, we take a balanced approach to our negative emotions such that our pains are neither exaggerated nor suppressed.
  • Exposure to rationalization: Retrain your thoughts to bring about the understanding that our common humanity necessitates negative emotions of suffering as well as feelings of personal inadequacy, and that this is all part of our shared human experience rather than an isolated reality. One example: “I am thankful to be perfectly imperfect and have an imperfect existence.”
  • Daily gratitude: Be grateful for what you do have and celebrate who you are by sharing gratitude with others.
  • Embrace the ordinary moments: Joy is found in the form of embracing the ordinary moments of our lives rather than getting swept into the pursuit of the extraordinary. Those that have suffered many losses always return to the ordinary moments of their lives that brought them great joy.
  • Build resilience and cultivate hope: Renew your mindset to reset those experiences that diminish your experience of joy, fight through despair, and adopt the capacity to build upon joy in the midst of your challenges and difficulties.

Navigating the Streams of Perfectionism

Since childhood, perfectionism can have a foothold with strong underlying assumptions. Thoughts as, “If I’m perfect, I will not be ridiculed, abused, and rejected. I’ll be accepted and loved” are part of the inner dialogue to account for perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism can be seen as a way of coping with the sense of self that is not ‘fitting in with the world’, and the emotions of ‘not having a place of belonging’ and ‘not feeling accepted by others’.

Author and researcher Brené Brown states that,

Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. Perfectionism actually sets us up to feel shame, judgment, and self-blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.” Many college students, as well as the American public, tend to be on a perfectionism continuum in which the painful feelings of vulnerability to shame, judgment, and self-blame are more prevalent or hidden based on their perception. Ultimately, navigating these streams of perfectionism require us to move from, “What will people think?” to “I am enough.”

Perfectionism in Adulthood

          On a regular basis, young adults are arrayed with demands to consistently improve their performance as well as persist in light of evaluation, criticism, and corrective rebuke. These frequent demands continue into adulthood within the workplace, home, and community environments; moreover, the desire to excel in performance, improve, and meet high standards are not equivalent to perfectionism. Standards generally cause people to achieve more; yet, this approach to understanding perfectionism can help to promote a healthier lifestyle and alternative mindset for young adults. With the current research on perfectionistic outcomes, it becomes important for college students to navigate their emotional state, confront situations that make them feel anxious, and continually challenge situations that lead to negative and perfectionistic thinking. Perfectionism has an emotional machinery that is symptomatic of harsh self-dialogue, and its function serves as a way to pursue love, self-worth, and security.

Within a market-based, performance-driven, and digital-saturated societal landscape, perfectionism is an outflow for college students and young adults to feel safe, connected, and experience self-worth within a world where status, performance, and image are what define an individual’s usefulness and value. With the hidden yet evidential outbreak of perfectionism arising across college campuses, organizations and faculty on campuses must teach on the importance of compassion over competition and seek out ways to condition the current mental health trends for young adults.

Current and Future Trends

               Since 1989, perfectionism has steadily increased by 33% among college students. “Millennials feel pressure to perfect themselves partly out of social media use that leads them to compare themselves to others,” said Thomas Curran, the study’s lead author and a lecturer in the Center for Motivation and Health Behavior Change at the University of Bath in England. He added that this theory would require further research. “Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve,” he said. They have “increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves.” Perfectionism is seen as a personality trait or character quality that is innate in people. It can be nurtured in environments, notably in families where personal accomplishment, academic or otherwise, is rewarded. “Where self-esteem is earned, not just given out with a trophy for participation,” said Steve Codling, a high school teacher in Seattle who believes in pushing his students as well as his college-age sons to excel and praising them when they do. With excessive social media use, parents are also taking notice that their children are prone to feelings of being ashamed and anxious with personal vulnerability toward judgment, criticism, and negative self-evaluations of themselves.

Additionally, current studies indicate that college students have more of a tendency toward depressive symptoms as an overflow of perfectionism. Students become stuck in an endless cycle between self-defeating thoughts, over-striving with each new demand, maintaining high standards and harsh self-rebukes while navigating their young adulthood. Current research meta-analyses indicate that perfectionism has increased, with greater statistical significance, within the past three decades for college students. Universities can be a breeding ground for perfectionistic tendencies as many face pressures and beliefs birthed out of examinations and sporting trials where comparison and evaluation against one another are widespread and commonplace. A study in 2010 surveyed 1,200 psychologists across college campuses; psychologists that strived for perfection and held unrealistic expectations for themselves were found to be less likely to produce publications, publish in high-impact journals, and receive citations.  


If you or someone you know is struggling with the pressure of perfectionism, please reach out to us. We have over 35 licensed therapists that are here to help you and walk with you down the path of healing. Visit our staff page or contact us to be matched with a therapist.

Recommended Resources:

  • Without Rival: Embrace Your Identity and Purpose in an Age of Confusion and Comparison by Lisa Bevere
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by  Brené Brown
  • Needy People: Working Successfully with Control Freaks and Approval-holics by Dale J. Dwyer
  • Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff
  • Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
  • Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin