Perfectionism is a major issue for many people, especially young women. At universities all across the country, and around the world, students are pushing themselves to succeed — often far beyond their limits.
I should know. For years, I was one of them.
Perfectionism can take over any area of life, from work, to school, to body image. My perfectionism was academic. I wanted to be the best student and get the best grades I could.
These kinds of aspirations, along with work ethic needed to achieve them, can be a good thing. But when taken too far, they can be unhealthy, causing enormous stress and leaving us frustrated, unhappy, and overwhelmed by our own standards. For that reason, today I'm addressing how to overcome perfectionism in college — how to identify it, address it, and overcome it.
This post also comes with a free How to Overcome Perfectionism in College workbook for those of you who want to follow along. It is specifically designed to help you identify and address your perfectionistic habits, set goals, and track your journey to healthier thinking. You can download the workbook here in my free resource library for Sara Laughed subscribers.
Please note that it is password-protected; the password is the same as for the College Resource L4ibrary. If you are subscribed to the mailing list, you will get the password in your inbox! You can sign up here.
1. What is perfectionism?
Having high aspirations and wishing to succeed is certainly a good thing. But when do we go to far, striving for success in an unhealthy and unhelpful way?
The major line here is to take a look at our standards. Standards are the ideas or definitions we keep in mind to define success for ourselves. For example, when working on a college paper, my standard may be any of the following:
- A paper that meets the requirements of the assignment, and demonstrates my knowledge.
- A paper that shows my skill and independent thought.
- A paper that is better than every other students' paper and gets an A.
As you can tell, some of the above standards are healthier than others. The first two standards are focused on what I can do and control: writing an assignment that meets the requirements, demonstrates my knowledge, and shows my skill and thought. These standards will probably help guide me to writing a paper that I am proud of, regardless of my grade received.
The third standard is based on things I can't control: the quality of the other students' work, and the grade the professor gives me. If I try to meet this standard, I will probably never get to a level that I am proud of; someone could always write a better paper, and I don't know what grade I'll get.
So how do you know if your standards are unhealthy, and you may struggle with perfectionism? Let's take a look.
2. Identifying Perfectionism in Yourself
Answer the questions below, and try to do so honestly. You can find these questions, and a chart to answer them, on page 4 of the workbook.
- Do I have to work very hard to meet my own standards?
- Do I want to be the best in everything, even if it’s not an interesting or important area for me?
- Am I very conscious and aware of my mistakes?
- Do I often criticize myself for even small mistakes?
- Do I often get angry, depressed, frustrated, or overwhelmed when doing work?
- Do I judge myself on my ability to meet my standards?
- Do I feel like my assignments are never “done” because they could always be better?
- Do my standards make it harder for me to finish things, meet deadlines, or work in group projects?
If you answered “yes” or “sometimes yes” to four or more of the above questions, you likely struggle with some degree of perfectionism. But as I mentioned earlier, perfectionism can happen in any number of ares of your life. Lower on page 4 are some example areas. In which of these areas do you feel you may struggle with perfectionism?
- School assignments (e.g. papers, essays, presentations)
- Class participation (e.g. raising your hand, speaking up in class)
- Having a clean and organized room
- Lifestyle and health
- Hygiene and appearance
3. Wanting to Change
So you may have some areas in your life where you have unhealthy standards. Even if you recognize that you struggle in those areas, you may not want to change. There are, after all, benefits to being a perfectionist. For example:
- You are often a good student, or a hard worker
- You may be organized
- You may often be prepared for situations or outcomes
- It may make you feel good, special, and prepared
However, there are also major downsides:
- Lack of free time due to constant work, tweaking, and polishing
- Never feeling good enough, or accomplished enough
- Catastrophic thinking (e.g. “If something is done wrong, it’s all my fault.”)
- Poor self esteem (e.g. “If I do something wrong, it means I am a terrible person.”)
- Procrastination (e.g. “I’m so afraid of making a mistake that I never start!”) If procrastination is a major issue for you, make sure to check out my eBook!
- Lack of productivity due to high standards
- Fear and anxiety about making mistakes
- Depression due to struggling to meet your own standards.
Do any of these negatives resonate with you? If so, it is time for a change.
4. Assessing your standards for change
Why adjust your standards? Because perfectionism is both a thought and a habit. By adjusting the way you think about success, work, and yourself (also known as your standards for those areas of your life), and by adjusting how you respond to them, you will start to chip away at the hold that perfectionism has on you. This technique is taken from the stunningly helpful Perfectionism in Perspective class offered by the Centre for Clinical Interventions, available for free here. Many of the questions below are modeled on different sections of their modules.
Your standards should be FAR: flexible, attainable, and realistic. You should not have to bend over backwards to meet the standards that you set for yourself; rather, they should be able to bend to your life and needs (flexible). And you should not have to work for something that is unrealistic or unattainable for you: the standards you set should be ones that, with a little hard work and dedication, you can reach (attainable and realistic).
Take a look at page 5 of the free workbook. Use the chart to assess the unrealistic standards you may have in any area of the above (or other areas) of your life. If you found that many of your standards are not flexible, achievable, and realistic, then these are good areas in which to adjust your standards.
5. Adjusting your standards
Now to the nitty-gritty. Take a look at the list of standards that you made on page 5, and find one or two standards that contribute the most to your general stress levels. For example, the standard that I struggle with the most is that I feel I must get an A in every class, and that anything below an A is failure. This is ridiculous, of course; while it's admirable to strive for As, it's unrealistic to get them all the time.
Select the standard that is the biggest stressor for you. Now look to pages 6 and 8 of the workbook to answer some questions about that standard. The questions are structured to help you change your mindset about the standard and come to terms with changing it. When you finish page 6, come back to this post for the next step.
6. Setting goals
You've probably heard it time and time again. When setting a goal, choose one that is SMART:
As we set goals for the standard that you chose, we're going to make sure that our goals are smart as well. The goal-setting portion of the workbook can be found on pages 7 and 9. Let's take my standard from part 5 and answer the questions found on page 7 together.
What is the unrealistic standard that I would like to change?
I will only be a successful student if I get an A in every single class.
What would be a more realistic standard?
I am a successful student if I do my best to learn the material. My grades do not define my success.
What is one habit that would help me change my standard?
Balancing my work with self-care and free time.
What is a way I can act this out in my day-to-day life?
Daily yoga practice; 30 minutes of reading before bed; meals with friends instead of over work.
What time frame do I have to enact this practice?
Is it okay if I make mistakes along the way?
Answer these questions for yourself using the workbook. I have included enough pages for two standards in this section of the workbook, so feel free to answer them for either one or two of the standards you identified in the previous section. Try to focus on just one or two before moving on to more. This will help you with your changes of success.
7. Dealing with Hurdles
As you try to adjust and change your standards, you make likely come across some problems such as:
- Fear of change (e.g. “If I lower my standards, my grades will suffer.”)
- Reacting to mistakes (e.g. “I slipped up; I will never be able to overcome this.”)
- Circumstances leading you to old behaviors (e.g. a breakup causing you to return to your old standards as a coping mechanism).
These things are all completely normal and natural parts of the process of overcoming perfectionism! However, we can make them easier when they do happen by planning ahead. On page 10 of the workbook, answer the questions to help you identify what kind of hurdles in thought or behavior you may face, and make plans for how to deal with them. For the last question on page 10 (“What are some things I could say to feel better when dealing with the hurdle?”), you may struggle to come up with things to say. That's where our next section comes in.
Mindset is one of the most important ways you can set yourself up for success when dealing with any problem. Today, we're adjusting our mindset around perfectionism and success. But often, changing our thoughts is easier said than done. Here are some ways you can do it (and some inspiration for the last question on page 1o!).
a. Follow up negative thinking with more realistic statements
Often, we get bogged down by negative thinking the second we make a mistake. As perfectionists, it's easy to turn a simple error into a statement about who we are as people: “I had a typo in the first page of my essay. I'm a terrible student and my professor must have no respect for me now. I will never live down this embarrassment.”
When faced with this kind of black-and-white, catastrophic thinking, it is helpful to follow up our negative thoughts with more positive, realistic ones. Every time you notice yourself getting overwhelmed, consider some of the following statements. Repeat them to yourself:
- Nobody is perfect.
- Everybody makes mistakes.
- Making mistakes is natural and human.
- It’s okay if somebody dislikes or disagrees with me. No one is liked by everybody in their life.
- I am okay exactly as I am, mistakes and all.
- I accept and love myself exactly as I am.
- It’s better to have something done imperfectly than not done at all.
These statements are good examples of the kind of things you may find helpful when answering the final question on page 10.
b. Reframe the issue
Imagine something like this had happened to a good friend of yours, rather than to yourself. What would you tell them if they were in your situation? Would you assume your friend was lazy, bad, or a terrible person because of their mistake?
The same goes for completing an assignment or something you would usually take a perfectionistic approach to. Would you judge your friend's worth, intelligence, or general success on the basis of a single paper or test? Definitely not!
c. Take a step back
One of my favorite exercises when I get overwhelmed with negative thinking is to take a step back and re-examine the issue from the future. In five years, how much will this moment, mistake, or assignment matter? How about in ten? Will I even remember it? Consider this as you process your assignment or what you are dealing with.
d. Laugh and forgive
It should be no surprise that this is my final piece of advice for changing your mindset. I love laughter, both as a lifestyle (take life as it comes, and don't take it too seriously), and as a practice to help us move past mistakes and enjoy life. When you make a mistake, or find yourself getting overwhelmed by an assignment, try to laugh about it. You are human, and you make mistakes. They are not a big deal, and they do not define you.
The last piece of advice I have as you try to track these goals and move towards less perfectionistic habits and thoughts is to journal. Whether in a planner, a notebook, or a diary you bought just for the occasion, journal your thoughts and feelings as you change your thoughts and lifestyle. Use your entries as a chance to remind yourself of the statements above, to reflect on your progress, and to grow as a person. You will find some great questions to keep in mind as you journal on page 10 of your workbook.
Resources on How to Overcome Perfectionism
In my research for this post, two websites really stood out to me. The first is this great PDF by AnxietyBC, with tons of tips and information on understanding and moving past perfectionism. The second is this absolutely extraordinary free resource by the Centre for Clinical Intervention, which has nine modules for dealing with, tracking, and understanding perfectionism. This resource was major in helping to set up this post and workbook, so thank you to the CCI! Be sure to check out their website and resources here. They are invaluable.
I hope these tips will help you deal with perfectionism and overcome your negative thinking. But it's time to hear from you!