As a university student, aiming high is a great thing. Continuous improvement and genuinely caring about your grades is generally something to be proud of – but like everything in life, the benefits of aiming high plateau at a certain point, and constantly striving for perfection can have detrimental affects on your mental health. Perfectionism can exist in a variety of ways and appear in multiple aspects of life, but this article will tackle perfectionism from a student lens.
Perfectionism occurs when we formulate our self-worth purely based on the way we meet (or fail to meet) unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves, or we only meet these expectations at significant personal costs. It can manifest in our lives early via a plethora of situations; it’s different for all of us but usually stems from some sort of childhood experience, whether that be a family, school, friendship group, or other social stimuli. This influence shapes us to believe that it’s normal and necessary to constantly be chasing high achiever status.
For example, achieving decent grades on early school life assessments are usually met with high praise from your teachers and parents. An “excellent work” scrawled on your paper with a funky sticker would have made you feel really good about yourself and led you to believe (rightly so) that you’ll be recognised when you do well. This idea is strongly reinforced when we receive no praise or recognition for achieving moderately less, for example achieving a B grade or distinction, both of which should still be celebrated. Over time, this belief can develop to be more rigid and we believe that people will only actually like us when we succeed, which is a dangerous slope for our mental health. Our susceptibility to perfectionism can also be caused purely by our temperament.
We feel good when we meet or exceed goals – but if you’re seriously chasing 100% in that essay which is due next week, chances are you’ll receive feedback that leaves you unfulfilled – even if you earn a high distinction there will be a small piece of guilt tugging at you; why didn’t I do better? This guilt is both dangerous and counterintuitive.
Severe cases of perfectionism have led to anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts in past studies. Today’s students are increasingly struggling with these conditions and perfectionism has been said to be a huge contributing factor. It’s also been linked to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
To break free from perfectionism, consider incorporating mindfulness activities – such as yoga and meditation – into your daily routine to increase your self-compassion. This will help to lessen the influence of your inner critic. When you receive results and feedback from an assessment, treat yourself the same way you would with your close friend who achieved the same grade. If they received 70%, you’d probably tell them they did a great job – so why isn’t that same grade good enough for you?
Additionally, you should ensure your goals are realistic. Aiming for 100% is hardly ever going to pay off – give yourself some leeway. Through focusing on the journey and skills required to reach the final task, you can better appreciate what you got out of that task, rather than only caring about the final grade it receives. Maybe you didn’t achieve the highest-grade benchmark, but what if that class taught you something you didn’t know before? What if you know that’s the deepest analysis you’ve ever undertaken? Understand that you learn something from each and every experience regardless of its end result.
Try to evaluate your self-worth from a variety of influences in your life. A toxic perfectionist will base the majority of their self-worth on their academic achievement, but there are other things to examine too: body positivity, friendships, family, work, sport, travel and more.
So strive for excellence by all means – but keep it healthy; don’t burn yourself out in the process.