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Perfectionism: A Growing Challenge for College Students

Colleges around the country are experiencing an increasing problem with the mental health of their students. The number of students seeking counseling while in college has increased over the years. In fact, a study by The American College Health Association found that the majority of students had experienced “overwhelming anxiety”. The study also showed that 40 percent of college students admitted they had experienced such high levels of anxiety in the prior year that it was difficult to function. Those are alarming statistics. It’s important to pinpoint where this increase in mental health challenges is coming from. While there are several different reasons one of them is the struggle with perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?

According to Google, the definition of perfectionism is, “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”. In college, this could be striving for perfect grades, maintaining the perfect social life, always looking the part, and participating in the right extracurriculars to build out your resume. 

Why is perfectionism a bad thing?

Just reading over what perfectionism would look like for a college is enough to overwhelm some people. Entering college is a whole new world for students. It comes with new freedom and responsibilities that many students have never experienced. When students are living away from home and their family, they are without the support system that they have always relied on.

Many students were able to get away with striving to be perfect in high school and some were even able to excel at it. But the new situation and increased level of workload ends up being too much to maintain the standard in college, and rightly so. Yet, it doesn’t stop students from pursuing it even though it takes a toll on their mental health. 

Perfectionism sets unrealistic expectations

Perfection is a goal that no student, or person for that matter, can achieve. That means when you strive for perfection you are ultimately setting yourself up for failure. Striving for this unrealistic expectation leads to anxiety, shame, and stress as you work to accomplish something that just isn’t possible. For some students this leads to other health and wellness problems like substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression

Perfectionism causes procrastination

Knowing that you are setting out to accomplish something that isn’t realistic causes procrastination. The goal of doing something to perfection is overwhelming. It causes students to put off getting started on projects because they are afraid they won’t be able to achieve their desired outcome. But, this causes additional problems because procrastinating only adds to the stress that you feel. It also causes you to stay up late trying to complete assignments or study because you delayed in getting started when you should have. 

What causes students to strive to be perfect?

There are many different reasons that students strive for perfection. Discovering the root cause of where the desire came from can be a key to learning how to overcome it. 

  • Family expectations – There are some families that place a strong focus on academics and grades. In these homes, anything that is less than perfect is criticized or corrected. When a student grows up in this environment, they learn to identify their success and worth with being perfect which causes them to always strive for perfection. Feeling that a less than perfect outcome is letting down your family members and not meeting their expectations can lead to anxiety and depression.
  • Social media – There have been many studies done that show the dangers of social media usage. In a world where everyone seems to be posting “perfect” selfies of themselves and all of their accomplishments, it can be easy to feel that you don’t measure up. There is a lot of danger that comes from comparing yourself and your life with what you see on social media. It has been explained that social media is a highlight reel of someone’s life. They only share the things that make them look good. When you compare your everyday life to their highlight reel you are never going to come out ahead. 
  • Painful situations in your past – Sometimes the strive for perfection is born out of painful situations that you have lived through. It could be that you never felt you measured up to one of your siblings or that a parent left, and you question if you were responsible. These types of situations can cause students and young adults to strive for perfection in order to view themselves and have others view them as “enough”. 

Warning Signs to Watch Out For

There are some symptoms that you can watch for in yourself and your peers to help identify if you struggle with perfectionism. You don’t have to have all of the symptoms on this list in order for it to be a struggle. And, there may be some symptoms you have that are not included below. See if you can identify with any of the following:

  • You have difficulty acknowledging and celebrating your successes
  • There is no acceptable mistake.
  • You feel people won’t like you if they know you’re not perfect
  • You feel unsatisfied with life
  • You’re constantly procrastinating on studying and completing assignments
  • You constantly feel overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious

If these sound familiar it’s time to get help. There is no shame in seeking treatment to help get your strive for perfection under control. And, once you do so, it will be much better for your mental health. 

How Students Can Get Help

The good news is most college campuses are set up with counseling centers that understand the pressures that students face. If you think you may have a problem reach out to a counselor on campus or a local therapist in your area. There are also some habits that you can start to practice on your own while also seeking treatment:

  • Make a list of your positive characteristics that have nothing to do with your performance. 
  • Learn time management skills and set realistic goals for yourself and your schedule. 
  • Change your internal dialogue and cut yourself a break. Remove “Should have known…” from your vocabulary. 
  • Stop focusing on doing it perfectly and instead focus on doing the best job possible with the time that you do have. 
  • Practice self-care like meditation and mindfulness and allow yourself to time to rest. 
  • Stop caring what others think of you and don’t compare yourself to others. 

College and the transition to adult life have enough challenges on its own. Perfection is not something to be achieved. Simply focus on doing the best you can and being happy with that. And, if you are struggling, don’t be ashamed or afraid to talk to a counselor.

References:

Spring 2017 reference group data report. (2017, October). Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_SPRING_2017_REFERENCE_GROUP_DATA_REPORT.pdf

Perfectionism: A Growing Challenge for College Students


Julie K. Jones, Ph.D., LPC

Julie K. Jones, Ph.D., LPC is the owner and director of Well Life Therapy, LLC, a private group psychotherapy practice in Middletown, CT. She and her clinical team offer a wide range of services and specialties including perinatal/postpartum support, trauma recovery, couples and family counseling, and teen/young adult assistance. She is a founding member and board member of the Connecticut Chapter of Postpartum Support International.

APA Reference
Jones, J. (2018). Perfectionism: A Growing Challenge for College Students. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 20, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/perfectionism-a-growing-challenge-for-college-students/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Dec 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Dec 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.