How to Challenge Academic Perfectionism

I was always the kid in my middle and high school art classes who got stressed about my art project being “perfect,” so much so that my art teacher created a code word for me to indicate that I needed to relax (this is a true story and the code word was “pineapple”). I meticulously checked my grades and feared failure. I’ve been there – I know what it feels like to strive for perfection and I know how it feels to be disappointed by the fact that it is impossible to be perfect (this really sank in for me when I took college chemistry). Eventually, it catches up to you and this is a good thing.

Perfectionism can be described as the over-application of high standards related to excellence and often shows up in academics. Here are some ways to start challenging perfectionistic ways of thinking:

Take care of yourself.

In the pursuit of perfection, well-being is often put on the backburner. Countless hours studying can come at the expense of a good night’s sleep. When high (and often unachievable) standards are not met, you are devastated. When your self-worth is closely tied to your grades, talents, or abilities, it is shattered when you inevitably make a mistake or perceive yourself as failing. It is completely okay to prioritize academic pursuits, though not when it negatively affects your health and well-being. Taking care of yourself can look like balancing study time with adequate sleep, spending time with friends, going to the gym to blow off some steam, or simply having a moment to do something mindless like watching your favorite show.

Understand how it has helped and hindered you.

I’m a firm believer that we keep engaging in certain behaviors for a reason. For many of us, the drive to be perfect has actually pushed us to attain many great things like setting the curve in a class or getting a promotion at work. Though our drive to achieve is often motivated by fear of failure, perhaps it has given us the extra push to do well for ourselves. However, it also comes at a cost. Aside from negatively impacting your mental and physical health, this rigid way of thinking can also lead to the following behaviors that limit your ability to grow: procrastinating, excessive checking, avoidance, reassurance seeking, difficulty making decisions, overcompensating, giving up too soon, and failure to delegate, to name a few.

Embrace a growth mindset. 

Those of us who move through the world with perfectionism tend to be very rigid in the way we think, which is also known as having a “fixed” mindset; we believe our abilities are innate, which also means that we believe that failure is permanent and that any form of feedback is a personal attack. This rigid way of thinking actually limits us in that it prevents us from learning new skills in the face of challenges. The more we can increase our flexibility to challenges, the more we can grow and develop as people; by experiencing how we can adapt and grow our skills in the face of challenges, we can also build self-esteem and confidence. To adopt a growth mindset is to commit to the journey of continual improvement and to find value in the process of doing so, embracing challenges as opportunities to learn and grow.

Adjust your expectations. 

One of perfectionism’s most ensnaring traps lies within outrageously high expectations. When we expect ourselves to be perfect, we are actually setting ourselves up for failure. Adjusting expectations to be more feasible and realistic doesn’t mean that you are giving up, it merely means that you are acknowledging that you are human. In other words, you can still strive for straight A’s by doing your best, but your soul and self-worth won’t be crushed by a B+. No, you are not lazy for adjusting your expectations (even if it feels like it).

Seek Therapeutic Help.

It is also important to uncover the roots of your perfectionistic thinking. Therapists can help you identify and work through the root of the issue, whether that be key experiences in childhood, teasing apart issues of self-worth and being “perfect,” or other challenges that may show up for you. For help with this, more tips, and attentive support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow.

Ashley Barnes relationship therapist sacramento ca online

Hi, I’m Ashley Barnes, therapist for individuals and couples at Love Heal Grow Counseling.

I help​ individuals and couples who seek to improve and enhance their relationships, those who wish to heal from painful experiences and navigate big life changes, and those who aspire to improve their mental well being.

You can read more about me or schedule an appointment here: About Ashley

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