Academic Perfectionism

Perfectionist : a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.

Essays. Reports. Presentations. Deadlines. You know the drill. For us students, this is the protocol for earning a degree. But what happens if you fall into the category of ‘academic perfectionist’? This month, I would like to tackle the issue of academic perfectionism and discuss ways that it can be managed.

 academic perfectionism

I have always been what one might call an ‘academic perfectionist’. I’m that person who will stay up until 3am trying to construct the perfect sentence; who starts an essay over and over again because I think it doesn’t look right; and worries for weeks about a full stop being in the wrong place. To summarise, academic perfectionism means that an individual bases their self-worth on academic ability. If their work isn’t ‘perfect’ they see this as a reflection of themselves. In turn, the individual will set goals for themselves which are simply unobtainable. Whether this is extreme or familiar to you, academic perfectionism is an issue that is often left in the dark.

According to a recent study, over 20% of students reported that academic perfectionism was the leading factor for their anxiety and depression. A further study discovered that students with perfectionist tendencies are three times more likely to consider suicide. These figures are extremely alarming. So, what can we do to help?

If you’ve been stuck in a mode of thinking it can be hard to get out of it. The first step is to admit you are a perfectionist. It is important to acknowledge that you are experiencing these feelings. Perfectionism is complicated because it is often met with praise. You are acknowledged for being hard-working and dedicated. They see an exceptional piece of work; not the hours you spent correcting a single word in a 3,000 word essay which resulted in you crying because the word didn’t feel like the right one. It’s a vicious circle.

Perfectionism can be a positive thing. It can make us flourish and achieve what we may never have imagined to be possible. But, it can also consume us. If you are experiencing these feelings, it is important to speak to someone. This might be a lecturer, counsellor, parent or friend. It can be difficult because perfectionists often believe their way of doing things is the ‘perfect’ way, especially if it has gotten them success before. It can be difficult to open up, but I can assure you that everyone has experienced perfectionism at some point in their lives.

I used to think my perfectionism was precious. It was just something I was known for. Everyone else knew this too. I used to thrive off getting the best grades and the praise that came with it. Because perfectionism had gotten me so far in my career, I was worried about letting go. It wasn’t until I thought about how much it was affecting my happiness that I decided to speak to a professional. Trust me when I say that opening up about my perfectionism was one of the best things I’ve ever done. If anyone is going through the same thing, I urge you to seek guidance. Please, don’t feel guilty or ashamed about the way you feel.

I’ll leave you with something someone told me a little while ago that sums all this up perfectly: Just try your best. Grades are important but don’t let them defeat you.