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It’s four in the morning, and you’re triple-checking the details of your research proposal or paper. You don’t submit your draft presentation because it’s too rough, even though you need your supervisor’s feedback. You skip cleaning your apartment for two weeks in a row because unless you can scrub every inch with a toothbrush, it’s not worth it.
If this sort of behavior sounds familiar, you might be a perfectionist.
Perfectionism can hurt us
Perfectionism can be much more significant in your life than some other personality quirks are. Research has found that perfectionist tendencies can solidify and grow, leading to behavior patterns that decrease productivity and increase the risk of developing serious conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, and depression.
Perfectionism can also help us excel
But perfectionism is unlike many other health issues. While no good ever comes of tobacco use or driving drunk, perfectionism often boosts performance. LeBron James shot thousands of free throws before he mastered the skill. Pianists toil for years before they are skilled enough to play at Carnegie Hall. Monet set his canvas in the same spot day after day to capture every hint of leaf and sun.
Perfect red flags
But when perfectionism becomes maladaptive—that is, when it hurts more than it helps—it can harm students’ personal relationships, academic performance and relationships, and emotional health.
“Generally, it’s a red flag when perfectionist efforts seem to be making things worse instead of better,” says Dr. Jesse Crosby, a researcher at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (affiliated with Harvard Medical School), who studies perfectionism.
Edwin G., of Imperial Valley College in California, says his perfectionism has caused unnecessary stress and prevented him from trying new things: “I [am] afraid I won’t be good enough. For example, [my perfectionism] stopped me from joining the gym because I was afraid I wasn’t going to do exercises right.”
Warning signs for maladaptive perfectionism include:
- Avoiding tasks
- Anxiety associated with trying to make everything perfect
- All-or-nothing thinking: e.g., “I don’t have this time to do it perfectly right now, so I’ll put it off”
How people become perfectionists
Perfectionism can represent an emotional struggle. “Perfectionists have an emotional conviction that in order to be acceptable as a person, they need to be perfect,” says Dr. Tom Greenspon, a psychologist and author of Moving Past Perfect (Free Spirit Publishing, 2012).
The origins of that struggle might be genetic, research suggests. In a 2012 study, identical twins rated much more similarly than fraternal twins for perfectionism and anxiety. But perfectionist tendencies, like other behaviors, are also shaped by our environment. You don’t “catch” perfectionism. Instead, your psyche, your lifestyle, and your surroundings help determine whether you gravitate toward it.
For example, a competitive academic atmosphere might prompt students to set unrealistic standards for their work. “In school, I strive to get only As. I’ll be disappointed if I get even one B. I put a lot of pressure on myself,” says Edwin. Another trigger for perfectionist behavior is vague syllabi and assignments, which give students room to expect more from themselves than professors do.
Strategies to keep perfectionism under control
There’s more to perfectionism than your environment. Students, family members, and professors can use certain strategies to avoid the harmful effects of procrastination, says Dr. Crosby.
1 Chunk your projects
Professors can break large projects—such as a 30-page research paper—into smaller pieces to be submitted periodically. Ask your professors to consider this approach. For example:
Week 1: the topic and research questions. Week 2: an initial list of sources. Week 3: an outline. Week 4: a draft. Week 5: the final paper.
2 “Crack the door” on tasks
Completing even a small part of a project creates momentum and helps erode fears that a given task is too complex or difficult.
Professors can “crack the door” by collaborating with students on the first homework question, or by setting aside class time to help students structure a research strategy. Alternatively, make the first steps a collaboration with classmates.
3 Be flexible and prioritize
Take a flexible approach to reading assignments and other tasks. If you’re burning the midnight oil to take meticulous notes on an optional reading assignment, your standards may be too high. To cope with a heavy workload, Dr. Crosby says, you must prioritize. For example, when I was in law school, professors assigned hundreds of pages of heavy reading a week. I quickly decided that I would skip reading dissenting opinions—writings by judges that have no legal impact—and focus on the other stuff. Just like ER staff must stop the bleeding before they treat the headache, students can distinguish between tasks that need heavy attention and those that simply aren’t so important.
4 Remember that improvement, not total mastery, is the goal
“If something is on the syllabus, you’re not expected to know everything about it before you take the course or even afterwards,” says Dr. Crosby.
Get help or find out more
Resources and treatment info:
The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts
The Gifts of Imperfection: Brene Brown (Hazelden, 2010)