It is time to start talking about perfectionism


So I just put the finishing touches on a guide for Masters of Dietetics students heading out on clinical placement. You can access it from our Self-Help Library. You’ll find it towards the bottom in the section ‘Resources for specific groups of students’.

It contains some of our standard self-care advice, but also digs into a few issues that are common to students who are heading out on clinical placements: feedback, communication and perfectionism.

That got me thinking about how I should start talking about some of these topics on the blog. So I thought I’d start with perfectionism, as it is an issue that affects a reasonable number of students. I don’t know a lot about the topic, so I’ll be learning and writing about it at the same time.

I thought I’d start by drawing on some of the perfectionism treatment materials produced by the Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). The CCI is ‘a specialist clinical psychology service in Perth, Western Australia’. They are well known for developing self-help materials that people can access on their site. They have content specifically about perfectionism, including a 9 Module Workbook for tackling perfectionism.

Today I’ll look at some of the content in Module 1 – What is Perfectionism?

Pursuing excellence is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I am a strong proponent of continuous incremental self-improvement. It is what I talk about when I talk about Mental Fitness.

But like anything, the pursuit of excellence can go awry. When the pursuit of excellence goes psychologically wrong, we call it perfectionism.

Think of perfectionism as consisting of three main things:

  1. Relentless striving for extremely high standards. There are a couple of pieces to this. The ‘relentless’ part, meaning that the pursuit of excellence is like an itch that you can never successfully scratch. You never feel like you’ve actually achieved, because there is always something else to push towards. Also the ‘extremely’ part, meaning that the goals/performance you demand of yourself are often beyond what anyone else would consider reasonable.
  2. Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such standards. This means that you determine your self-worth based on whether you achieve these unrelenting, extremely high standards. You might already be able to see the trap here. If the standards are always too high and you never feel like you’ve achieved them, you aren’t going to get anything to base your self-worth on. You’ll become highly self-critical cause you constantly perceive that you are failing.
  3. Keep persisting with the pursuit of these standards despite accumulating negative consequences. This sounds like the good ol’ human tendency to keep bashing away at the same ‘solution’ even when it is clear that it is not making our life any better. So despite obvious negative consequences of your pursuit of excellence, you stick with the same approach. It is almost like you are trying to be perfect at being perfect!

So what might this look like for a university student?

  • demanding of themselves perfect HD (high distinction) performance on all assignments and tasks
  • long hours spent trying to get every assignment ‘perfect’ – not knowing when to stop
  • trouble making decisions – getting stuck on small issues
  • constantly seeking reassurance that their performance is adequate
  • excessive organising (you know, those 20 to-do lists that you’ve created)
  • highly self-critical when they don’t achieve this standard
  • increasing distress and maybe decreasing academic performance over time because of this pursuit
  • lack of attention to other areas of life such as relationships, hobbies/interests, and health

But this isn’t the only way that perfectionism might present. Some students become frozen in the face of their own expectations and give up trying, procrastinate severely on their assignments, and try to avoid reminders of study altogether.

An interesting behaviour described in the Module, that I relate to, is that sometimes perfectionists demand the same level of performance in other people. They become frustrated at others when they don’t live up to unreasonable standards the perfectionist has implicitly assigned them. Their self-criticism becomes other-criticism.

Another interesting tendency in perfectionists is to put ‘all their eggs in one basket’ meaning the activity their perfectionism is based around becomes the only activity from which they derive a sense of self-worth. So a student might have multiple parts to their life: study, some work, friends, family, hobbies, sports, interests etc but they base their self-worth (am I a good person?) solely on their study performance. When that doesn’t pan out as they wish (which in perfectionists is the norm), their self-worth takes a real hit!


Am I a perfectionist?

The desire to perform well doesn’t make you a perfectionist.

But if you find yourself engaging in the following, it might indicate you’re on the perfectionistic side.

a) you are hypercritical of any mistakes you (or maybe others) make

b) you feel like you have to always get things right the first time

c) anything you do, you must do well

d) even if you do well, you never give yourself any credit

e) if you are going to do a task it should be ‘perfect’ or don’t bother

f) you find individual tasks consuming all your attention to the detriment of other tasks

Keep in mind, it might not be your studies where your perfectionism lies. Perfectionism can be connected to any aspect of life: work, study, house, close relationships, organising, eating/weight/shape, grooming/personal hygiene, sport, health/fitness


Are there any clues in this module for how to address it?

This module doesn’t deal at all with how to address perfectionism, but a couple of ideas came to mind as I was reading it.

The first idea was to set smaller and more achievable goals that seek to provide a small incremental improvement over previous performance. So if you got 70% for an assignment, try to get 75% for the next assignment. Get yourself used to setting reasonable goals.

The second idea was to invest time and effort into activities other than the one around which your perfectionism manifests. So if you tend to be perfectionistic in relation to your studies, then start investing time in a new hobby or interest. My guess is this will feel weird at first but it counteracts the tendency for perfectionism to shrink your world.

The third idea was to pick something that you suck at as a hobby. Give yourself permission to, and the experience of being bad at something but still finding enjoyment in it.

Inherent in all 3 ideas is that you might have to practice approaching tasks in a different way to how you have been. If a sports player needs to adjust their technique, they practice the new technique until their old one starts to disappear. You have to lay down a new pattern of behaviour when it comes to achievement.


Dig into the CCI’s Module if you want to learn more about any of these ideas. In the next post, I’ll dig into Module 2.


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