I see many anxious high school and college-age clients in my practice. As I get to know them, I have noticed that a large number are anxious because they are struggling with harmful perfectionism. While it is good to challenge yourself to do well and improve your performance it is possible to take it too far.
There is a big difference between having challenging goals and having standards that are impossible to meet. Standards so high that meeting them sacrifices your social life, physical health, and mental well-being. Many of my clients who have gone too far. They have swallowed wholly and uncritically the expectations and pressure to be perfect. Pressures that stem from social media, peers, parents, and academia. These clients tend to believe that they can live their lives without ever making mistakes. They believe that making a mistake means they are a failure or a horrible disappointment to others. Of course, mistakes are an inevitable part of being human, and authority figures are much more understanding than perfectionists imagine.
I think that the most useful information that I can impart to these clients is that perfectionism can be disguised. Disguised as good motivation and work ethic. Research has shown that inflexible standards of perfection actually make it harder, not easier to succeed, and certainly are the enemy of happiness.
When the drive to project superiority and the appearance of a perfect life results in anxiety, depression, and relentless critical self-talk, perfectionists can become stuck. Because their self-worth is so caught up in performing perfectly, it interferes with their success This slows them down immensely and it can even eventually become paralyzing.
I begin to suspect that my clients have unhealthy perfectionism when I observe the following:
They become very anxious or angry when they recall stories about times they have not achieved what they wanted to or times they made mistakes.
When their anxiety revolves around being embarrassed, humiliated, or judged.
They spend excess time on their work, such as spending 3 hours on an assignment that is supposed to take 15 minutes, writing and rewriting assignments, or starting over many times.
Extreme reactions or meltdowns when things don’t go perfectly, or as expected.
Struggling with chronic procrastination and difficulty completing tasks.
Extreme reluctance to try new things that they may not be able to master immediately.
Working to get past Harmful Perfectionism
There are some steps that students can take to overcome harmful perfectionism, but the first step is to realize that the motivation to be a high achieving student has taken a negative turn. It is important to become aware that your perfectionism is a problem.
Recognizing the signs in yourself
Ask yourself questions like:
Could it be that perfectionism is contributing to my feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression?
Is my self-worth based solely on my next success or achievement?
Do my achievements only temporarily make me happy?
Am I using a very rigid framework to view success?
Where did that framework come from? Is there another viewpoint I could adopt?
Listen to your self-talk
What are you saying to yourself? Do you often call yourself an idiot or a loser? Do you tell yourself that everyone is judging you or disappointed? Do you tell yourself that a mistake proves that you are incompetent? Are you able to replace those harsh unrealistic thoughts with more realistic ones? Thoughts like “everyone makes mistakes”, “I am doing this best that I can” or “I learn from my mistakes.”
Reframe your thinking
Are you falling into the common traps of thought errors? Many perfectionists engage in thinking styles that bolster and increase negative thoughts, depression, and anxiety.
Thinking in black and white. This is is unhelpfully framing everything in rigid extremes rather than realistic shades of gray.
“Shoulding” yourself to death. Making unreasonable demands or “shoulds” (such as “I should never make mistakes”) on yourself and others due to unrealistic standards.
Catastrophizing. Thinking of the worst-case scenario, then becoming excessively worried or convinced that it will happen.
Mind Reading. Assuming others are thinking critical things about you.
Fortune Telling. Believing that failures and bad luck are coming in the future.
Sometimes realizing that you are trying to force yourself to live up to impossible standards can help you modify your expectations. It can be helpful to explore how friends, other students, or even professors coped with setbacks and mistakes. Many celebrities, sports figures, and social media influencers talk publicly about their success despite flaws and failures. Do some research and perhaps adopt them as non-perfectionist role models.
Know when to ask for help
If you find yourself really stuck in the pressure to be perfect it might be time to consult a therapist. A therapist can help you reframe and modify your goals into more realistic and healthy ones. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a modality some therapists use that is especially helpful for anxiety caused by perfectionism. This method is effective because it helps you reality test and counter the negative thoughts and self-talk that perfectionism generates. Working with a therapist can give you compassionate support and guidance as you work on overcoming your perfectionism and may be a good option for you.