The “Perfect” Student (Part 1 of 2 on Perfectionism)

The pursuit of excellence can be encouraged in various ways throughout society.  High ambitions are not only validated, but are used to promote individual achievement and societal progress.  In educational settings, academic achievement is commonly viewed as a main indicator of success.  With the increased challenge of college acceptance and the fast-paced, competitive nature of the Northern Virginia area, it has been increasingly common to witness in my own clinical practice many high school students placing immense value and focus on academic grades and achievement. 

What is PerfectionismFor many people, perfectionism is considered a positive trait that can increase your chances of achieving success.  It can be described as setting rigorous high expectations, striving for flawlessness, and being overly self-critical of one’s performance.  Perfectionistic individuals can often put great significance on the evaluation and feedback of others.  As a result, they may feel pressure to perform constantly to high standards and to appear perfect to other individuals.  However, wanting to achieve success and working hard to obtain your goals does not always indicate perfectionistic tendencies.  Therefore, it is important to be able to distinguish between using high personal standards to help motivate and energize oneself toward goals, from unhealthy behaviors and the over reliance of self-critical thoughts. 

Examples of Perfectionism:

  • Taking longer than others to complete tasks
  • Avoiding tasks that an individual does not feel confident in or avoiding trying a new activity 
  • Comparing oneself unfavorably and unrealistically to others 
  • Difficulty feeling happy for other individuals’ success 
  • Placing unrealistic standards on loved ones and friends
  • Having excessive worry about personal grooming choices or style in clothing

Perfectionism has been generally linked: 

  • Adjustment problems
  • Physical health problems
  • Psychological distress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Eating disturbances
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Maladaptive coping behaviors  

The impact of perfectionism on learning and achievement:

  • Academic procrastination 
  • Less academic success
  • Test-taking problems
  • Anxiety surrounding academic tasks
  • Counter-productive to overall learning 
  • Motivated by the fear of failure
  • Measure of self-worth based on productivity and accomplishments
  • Difficulties with taking credit for success

What to do about PerfectionismConsidering the potential negative impact of perfectionism and the competitive environment of the Northern Virginia area, it is strongly recommended that parents are mindful of their children’s standard and expectations for success.  Likewise, teachers and academic advisors should become familiar with and learn to recognize examples of unhealthy perfectionism in high achieving students.  It is believed that this increase in awareness can provide opportunities for healthy dialogues about success, encourage realistic goal-setting, and to develop coping skills that are compassionate toward students’ perceived mistakes and difficulties.  With perfectionism considered a multi-dimensional concept with various possible causes, there is no shame in reaching out to school officials and to mental health professionals for some assistance in getting perfectionistic tendencies evaluated and under control.  The good news is with the continued rise of mental health awareness, mental health providers are more equipped than ever in supporting students facing these issues.  It is postulated that by addressing perfectionism in therapy, individuals can learn that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect student’ and that any goal should not come at the cost of one’s physical, emotional, and mental health. 

Ashley Hallheimer, PsyD.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist