Perfectionism is a topic/ condition that is discussed a lot in the university setting. It is usually described as a disabling condition, one that negatively impacts a student’s academic performance and also leads to significant distress [although, to be clear, it isn’t just students that struggle with perfectionism].
Perfectionism has multiple facets:
- Excessively high and often unrealistic standards
- Compulsive and unrelenting effort to attain those standards
- Self-worth assessed primarily on accomplishments
- Significant self-criticism when standards are not attained
Thus a common ‘perfectionism’ presentation might be something like:
“Michael expects HD in all of his topics. He works long into the night each day on his assignments and neglects other parts of his life. When he gets grades lower than HD he is highly distressed and admonishes himself repeatedly for being ‘stupid’. The long hours and anxiety about each assignment leaves Michael feeling extremely fatigued and he isn’t sure how long he can sustain this level of work.”
Struggles with perfectionism can often lead students to seek counselling support, although they might not be aware it is perfectionism at the time, but simply know they are anxious and stressed about their studies. Often by the time students present for help, they have actually disengaged from their studies because the stress of maintaining such a high level of work is unsustainable.
Treatment for perfectionism usually involves components to address each of the facets of perfectionism
- Learning to set more realistic goals
- Practising allocating reasonable amounts of time to academic study but also finding balance with other activities
- Expanding the range of activities from which the individual derives a sense of self-worth
- Challenging maladaptive beliefs about the importance of perfection as a performance standard
- Identifying and challenging negative self-talk and self-criticism
However, one of the more difficult aspects of speaking to perfectionists is broaching the topic of ‘high standards’ and the ‘pursuit of excellence’. Many perfectionists achieve excellent academic outcomes and are reluctant to abandon the pursuit of excellence, even though the pursuit is coming at a great personal cost to them.
Furthermore, the pursuit of excellence is culturally supported. We’re encouraged, by society, to set and pursue ambitious and bold goals and make the most of our lives. This is amplified further by the fact that many settings (including university) are competitive in nature. When competing for limited places in a higher degree, for example, it is adaptive to set high standards and pursue them.
Thus the question is – is it possible to separate out the pursuit of excellence from the other aspects of perfectionism? Might some aspects of perfectionism be adaptive?
Preliminary answers to these questions come from a recent paper by Flinders researchers Osenk, Williamson and Wade titled “Does Perfectionism or Pursuit of Excellence Contribute to Successful Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review”
They aggregated the outcomes of 67 studies looking into the relationships between different components of perfectionism and academic outcomes.
They wanted to know which aspects of perfectionism are associated with positive academic outcomes: high performance, engagement, adjustment, self-regulated learning, self-efficacy, satisfaction, hardiness, and which aspects of perfectionism are associated with negative academic outcomes: procrastination, poor performance, stress, burnout, test anxiety.
What they found was that, indeed, there are some aspects of the perfectionistic picture that seem to be associated with positive academic outcomes:
- Personal standards (PStan) – striving for high standards
- Self-oriented perfectionism (SOP) – a tendency to set high standards for oneself whilst also having the intrinsic motivation to achieve those standards
- High standards (HS) – a tendency to set high standards
High standards in particular was associated with positive academic outcomes AND also seemed to protect against negative academic outcomes. So setting bold and ambitious goals for yourself might not be a bad thing.
It appeared that the negative academic outcomes (procrastination, poor performance, stress, burnout, test anxiety) were associated with other parts of the perfectionism picture
- Concerns over mistakes (CM) – negative reactions to mistakes and viewing mistakes as failure
- Doubts about actions (DA) – consistent doubts that tasks have not been completed properly
- Socially prescribed perfectionism (SPP) – a tendency to expect others to have extremely high standards for oneself and what one achieves
- Discrepancy (D) – a sense of having fallen short of expectations and one’s standards
Discrepancy in particular was not only associated with negative academic outcomes, but also lower levels of positive academic outcomes. So regularly focusing on the gap between your current performance and your ideal performance and assessing yourself negatively as a result is not in your best interests.
So what should you take from this?
Setting high standards for yourself and pursuing those standards may be an important part of studying at university. In fact, I’d encourage you to set some bold and ambitious goals for your time here at Uni.
But I would temper this with also suggesting that you articulate the steps (sub-goals) you’ll need to achieve in order to get you to those bold goals. Yes it is fine to want to be getting D and HD for your topics, but what will you need to put in place to get you from your current credit average to that higher performance? Be realistic about considering the steps you need to take to get from where you are now to where you want to be, so you aren’t always focusing on the gap between you and your ideal performance, but rather the steps needed to shrink that gap.
This allows you to be bold in your goals but also acknowledges that incremental, gradual improvement is the norm.
As you look to enhance your performance, I would also encourage you to be mindful of whether some of the negative aspects of perfectionism start creeping in.
- Measuring yourself constantly against the ultimate goal, but never acknowledging the step goals towards that
- Setting goals that are simply too far beyond your current ability
- Criticising and demeaning yourself when you don’t achieve a standard you set for yourself
- Ruminating on failure and mistakes, rather than working out what lessons to take from your setbacks
- Over-relying on what you think others expect you to do
- Basing your whole self-worth on your performance at uni and neglecting other aspects of your life
What you are aiming for is (and I admit it can be a precarious balance) is a situation where you challenge yourself to improve regularly, but you understand the process of improvement isn’t linear and will involve some setbacks and disappointments. When those setbacks occur, try to find a way to treat yourself with kindness, so you are more likely to dust yourself off and have another go.
If perfectionism is a topic you’d like to read more about, let me know and I’ll find some more papers in the area.
You might also want to read the full paper if this is an area of interest to you (you can get it through the library) You will learn about the methodology used to do this study, learn more about the instruments used to measure perfectionism and probably get a better understanding of the definition of perfectionism itself (i.e. the components that make it up).