Perfectionism is often seen as a good thing but it can actually get in the way of achieving results. It is possible to relax your standards and still achieve.

The problem with perfectionism

People who are always striving for perfection often find that this drive to be ‘the best’ at all things can have an opposite, debilitating effect. When we have overly high expectations of ourselves this can cause undue stress, and prevent us from achieving and from gaining satisfaction from our efforts.

Te Whakatutukitanga

Whaia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuoho koe me he maunga teitei. Ahakoa e tika ana, me mohio ano te tangata ki ona ake kaha, ki ona ake pai. Ma te hanga whainga wa poto, wa roa hoki ka reka ake te whakatutukitanga. Mehemea kare e taea, hei aha. Me ngana ano. Kare a Roma i hangaia i te ra kotahi.

How to spot perfectionism

All-or-nothing attitudes

  • "I have to be top of the class, otherwise what's the point?"
  • "Anything less than an A is embarrassing!"

If you’re a perfectionist, you may feel the need to be the perfect partner or student (or friend, or worker)—anything less feels like a fail. There is no room for accepting the things you do well and learning from the ones you don't. You lose your sense of perspective.

A sense of powerlessness

  • "I spend far too many hours on a project and even hand it in late... because it just has to be perfect."

The things you feel you 'must' and 'should' do often drive you to do things you don't want to, and stop you from doing other things you enjoy. Perfectionists are often obsessed by their own routine. They never feel they do enough and constantly strive to do more regardless of the effect.

A sense of failure

  • "I have to work so hard that I don't enjoy what I do and I feel constantly guilty if I relax."

Goals that are too high inevitably lead to feelings of failure and uselessness.

Reluctance to take the ‘risks’ required to learn and grow

  • "If someone takes issue with what I say in a meeting or tutorial, I won't say anything after that."

Mistakes or disagreements are not examples of failure, but opportunities to learn from others and grow.

Excessive need for approval

When you can't reach your perfectionist standards, you're more likely to base your self-esteem on the approval of others. This makes you vulnerable to others' opinions, defensive, fearful of disapproval, and further driven to attain perfection.

Exacting standards toward others

  • "If they don't turn up on time, they don't love me enough."

Constantly aiming for perfection often extends to expecting perfection in others. This can lead to us being over-critical—making close relationships difficult.

What to do about perfectionism

Perfectionism is best dealt with by recognising your perfectionist tendencies, and noticing and challenging perfectionistic behaviour when it rears its head.

Challenging your perfectionism involves changing the way you think and do things. This is never easy. The first thing to do is to STOP and assess the situation, then take definite steps to change.

Set realistic goals

Get an overview of the situation and ask yourself what you really want. Keep this in mind when you set goals and try to be realistic about what you can achieve. Ask someone you trust (or a counsellor) whether they think your goals are realistic and achievable.

Value the process

Value the process as much as the result.

  • Break big goals/tasks into smaller tasks, which allows a sense of achievement as you work your way through them.
  • When working on an assignment, gain satisfaction from the planning, thinking and research involved as well as from your final grade.

Keep things in perspective

Try to be aware of obsessive behaviour. For example, do you find yourself sacrificing everything to get an 'A' in an essay or exam. Try to keep some space for the other important things in your life.

Learn to distinguish which tasks are important and give the greatest return. Put most effort into those tasks, and be willing to relax your standards a little with the others.

Acknowledge and learn from your mistakes

Remember: no mistakes, no growth. Allow yourself to make mistakes or get things a bit wrong, and be open with others when you do. Value other people's feedback – good and bad—and take it on board.

Be a self-supporter

Learn how to be your own supporter. Turn self-criticism into affirmation and encouragement. Instead of avoiding something because you feel you can't do it well enough, say to yourself:

  • "I'll do this the best I can in these circumstances."
  • "I know this isn't the perfect answer to this exam question but I can at least say something which will get me marks."

If you are feeling over-anxious about something, ask yourself:

  • Am I expecting too much?
  • What are the consequences of not achieving perfection?
  • What else is important – besides my desire to do this perfectly?

If you’re struggling with perfectionism and would like to help to make changes, Student Counselling can help with this.