Student Advocate: bullseye

Perfectionism can be difficult to spot as a problem, especially among high-performing students and in high-stress environments. But it’s critical to pay attention to students who are struggling with the pressure to be perfect because it can have serious effects on their mental health, academic performance, and self-esteem. The defining characteristic of perfectionism is a fear of making mistakes, according to research by Dr. Thomas Greenspon published in Psychology in the Schools (2014).

“Hallmarks of perfectionism include an exaggerated concern over any mistakes, lofty and unrealistic self-expectations, harsh and intense self-criticism, feeling other people need you to be perfect, and nagging doubts about performance abilities,” says Dr. Simon Sherry, a psychologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Perfectionism looks different for everyone. Here’s what to look for in our students

  • Feelings of inadequacy Those who struggle with perfectionism often feel that they’re not good enough, according to Greenspon’s research. If they do happen to make some mistakes, perfectionistic people are likely to take that personally. Their slip-ups become reflections of themselves as people, not just of their performance or achievement.
  • Setting rigid rules Perfectionistic people take rule-setting to an extreme, one that can get in the way of daily functioning. This intense structure can lead to other stressful and time-consuming habits, such as over-checking work to excess or missing deadlines, according to research published in 2016 in JMIR Research Protocols.
  • Procrastinating on assignments or never turning them in at all Students struggling with perfectionism are often consumed with making sure that every last detail is perfect. While some may never miss a deadline, others might hand in assignments past deadline, or never finish them at all, according to a 2014 study published in Psychology in the Schools.

So how can you help?

Build a community that values the learning process, not just the results

Encourage your students to think critically about what they’re learning, not just how they’re performing. Share examples of mistakes that you’ve made to reframe the idea that perfection is a requirement for success.

To prevent people from attributing their shortcomings to personal flaws, and to draw attention to how much failure it takes to get where you want to go, a Princeton professor created a nontraditional résumé. Share it with your students, or make one of your own.

Be more transparent about failure

In response to the pressure that students feel to perform, some schools are highlighting the times they didn’t get it right. Stanford University created The Resilience Project, a combination of events and programs that feature students, faculty, and staff talking about setbacks, failures, and learning from mistakes. Consider doing the same for your students.

Know your resources and share them with your students

If you see your students struggling with unrealistic expectations, self-imposed pressure to be perfect, or procrastination, make sure you know what resources are available to help and have that information visible and readily available. Ask if your student has connected with Ashford’s tutoring services, Writing Center, or the Office of Student Access and Wellness? The more you normalize reaching out, the more likely students are to feel comfortable doing so.

Get help or find out more


Article sources

 

Keith J. Anderson, PhD, registered psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Simon B. Sherry, PhD, registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Sarah Vinson, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist; assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia.

Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(10), 18. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx

Capan, B. E. (2010). Relationship among perfectionism, academic procrastination and life satisfaction among university students. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 1665–1671. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042810017167

Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156–172. Retrieved from http:// psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2014-38880-002

Greenspon, T. S. (2014). Is there an antidote to perfectionism? Psychology in the Schools, 51(9), 986–998. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265514641_Is_there_an_antidote_to_perfectionism

Handley, A. K., Egan, S. J., Kane. R., & Rees, C. S. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of group cognitive behavioural therapy for perfectionism. Behavior Research and Therapy, 68, 37–47. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273706203_A_randomised_controlled_trial_of_group_cognitive_behavioural_therapy_for_perfectionism

Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 269–288. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279191467_Multidimensional_P erfectionism_and_Burnout_A_Meta-Analysis

Hirsch, G. (n.d.). An imperfect look at overcoming perfectionism. University Counseling and Consulting Services. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from http://www.sass.umn.edu/pdfs/II%20Self%20Awareness/Perfectionism/C%204.4.8%20Imperfect%20Look%20at%20Overcoming%20Perfectionism%20%20rev..pdf

Kothari, R., Egan, S., Wade, T., Andersson, G., et al. (2016). Overcoming perfectionism: Protocol of a randomized controlled trial of an internet-based guided self-help cognitive behavioral therapy intervention. JMIR Research Protocols, 5(4), e215. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309959188_Overcoming_Perfectionism_Protocol_of_a_Randomized_Controlled_Trial_of_an_Internet-Based_Guided_Self-Help_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_Intervention

Lynch, T. R., Hempel, R. J., & Dunkley, C. (2015). Radically open-dialectical behavior therapy for disorders of over-control: Signaling matters. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 69(2), 141–162. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279987144_Radically_Open-Dialectical_Behavior_Therapy_for_Disorders_of_Over_Control_Signaling_Matters

Wade, T. D., & Tiggemann, M. (2013). The role of perfectionism in body dissatisfaction. Journal of Eating Disorders1, 2. Retrieved from https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2050-2974-1-2

University of Michigan. (n.d.). Coping with perfectionism. Retrieved from https://caps.umich.edu/content/coping-perfectionism

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Diana Rodriguez is a writer based in Louisville, KY, with more than 12 years of experience writing about health. She has written extensively for HealthDay, as well as Everyday Health, Healthgrades, Lifescript, Vitals, Mayo Clinic, and others. She graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with degrees in journalism and French.


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Chelsey Taylor works as an editor and content manager. She taught English in South Korea as a Fulbright Fellow and has a BA in anthropology from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.