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What is perfectionism? 

Perfectionism is the felt need or pressure to be or appear perfect, and is typically associated with having unrealistic high personal standards. These unrealistic high standards can be attributed toward the self or others. Striving for success is not the same as needing to be perfect. Perfectionism can be overlooked in conversations about mental health because for some it is seen as a virtue or aspirational. High standards might be useful and adaptive for certain people or in specific situations. For example, it can be motivating and drive you toward success. However, the notion of "perfect" is an impossibility. Striving toward perfection can be debilitating and lead to negative outcomes when one's daily functioning, sense of self, mental health, and/or relationships are affected by perfectionism. 

Often, perfectionists lean to earn approval through their achievements, confusing this approval for love, As a result you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other's approval. Thus, your self-esteem may be based primarily on external standards. Feelings of shame, fear of failure and disapproval, an over emphasis on "should," and all or nothing thinking are other common experiences that are associated with perfectionism. 

Examples of maladaptive, or unhelpful, behaviors as a function of perfectionism: 

  • Writing, rewriting, reviewing a two-sentence email 
  • Spending excessive time on assignments to get them "perfect" or failing to hand in an assignment because it isn't "perfect" 
  • Feeling like a failure of "not good enough" when you miss a few points on an assignment
  • Holding oneself to the standards of others' accomplishments or comparing oneself unfavorably and unrealistically to others
  • Focusing on the end product rather than the process of learning
  • Procrastinating on tasks until you feel like it can be performed "perfectly" 

How can I strive for success and not perfection? 

Learn to push against and let go of the "comparison mindset." We often look to others too compare, contrast, and evaluate success or failure in our own lives. However, constantly comparing self to others leads to feelings of envy, jealousy, or a sense of low self-worth. Notice how comparison is used in conversation with others and within your internal dialogue as a starting point in altering this mindset. Notice and challenge the negative self-talk and judgements. 

Practice mindfulness and focus on the here-and-now. Observe and accept your thoughts for what they are. Gentle remind yourself to stay in the present and focus less on the "end game." Be compassionate toward yourself and

Set realistic goals and take manageable steps to achieve these goals. Set goals based on your own wants and needs and what you have accomplished in the past. Set goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment. 

Get additional support. The Counseling Center can support you in addressing perfectionism by learning ways to manage and cope with perfectionism that will be most useful for you. Call or email to schedule an appointment. 

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