Healthy Striving vs. Perfectionism

We all strive to succeed in the various daily roles that we play, particularly as college students working toward a degree and balancing multiple demands. We so often, however, mistake success with perfection. We live in a society that values perfection and makes it appear easily attainable, but perfectionism ignores the fact that we are human and prone to making mistakes.

It is time that we break free from the problematic thinking of perfectionism and define a healthier sense of what we are striving for.

What is perfectionism?Healthy striving v. perfectionism at USD

We often set goals for ourselves to improve our performance on test taking or being more active. Perfectionism, however, can be seen as a more extreme approach to achieving excellence. To a perfectionist, anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

Perfectionism is:

  • a fear of failure
  • a fear of disapproval
  • constant comparison of oneself to others
  • seeing mistakes as evidence of incompetence
  • being close-minded to criticism

Perfectionism most often:

  • makes responsibilities and tasks feel daunting, often then interconnecting
  • perfectionism with procrastination
  • drains your time, productivity, and efficiency
  • demands unachievable outcomes

Myths about perfectionism:

Myth #1: I won’t be as successful if I’m not a perfectionist

While some perfectionists may be or seem successful at times, there is no true evidence showing that perfectionists are more successful than non-perfectionists and in fact, the additional stresses of striving for perfection may actually increase feelings of anxiety and insecurity, which can be counter-productive to our success.

Myth #2: Perfectionists get things done

Perfectionists often actually deal with procrastination, low productivity and time management challenges due to the “all-or- nothing” thinking that they have. Perfectionists may believe that everything can be separated between good or bad with nothing in between, creating a false belief that everything produced must be perfect and if it can’t be, then it’s not worth trying at all.

Myth 3#: Perfectionists can overcome any obstacle

This mentality is what can be a perfectionist’s biggest weakness. Perfectionists can often take on a superhuman persona believing that they can conquer every obstacle that lies in their path. However, this increased pressure to be perfect may make them more vulnerable to mental health issues including depression and anxiety.

Healthy Striving vs. Perfectionism

There’s a difference between setting goals that are within reach versus too high to ever achieve. Setting goals and completing them can add a healthy amount of motivation to your life, but it becomes a problem when all you are doing healthy strivers set realistic goalsis looking toward the end result and completing your goals just to check them off a list. Healthy strivers are people that take the extremity out of daily tasks and enjoy the process of achieving their goals. Healthy strivers will:

  • set high standards, but keep them within reach
  • bounce back from failure and disappointment
  • see mistakes as opportunities to learn
  • react well to critical feedback or helpful criticism
  • enjoy the process as well as the outcome

What you can do:
Shifting away from perfectionism begins with accepting the fact that we are human and that we make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of life but we can learn so much from them.

Here’s what you can do to slowly defeat perfectionist habits:

1. Make a list of disadvantages and advantages to being perfect. You may find that you like the list of disadvantages better than the advantages. There’s a lot more room to take risk, get creative, and be yourself when you choose not to aim to be perfect.

2. Make realistic goals. Learn your limits and try not to take on more than you can handle. Setting short-term goals initially is less daunting and allows you to work toward longer-term goals.

3. Learn to deal with criticism. This is difficult and takes time, mostly because the word “criticism” has its own negative connotations. Start by shifting your perspective of the word “criticism” to “advice” or “suggestions”. Look at criticism as a way of expanding your abilities. You can only get better and improve from taking “criticism,” or whatever you choose to call it.

4. Focus on the process of doing an activity rather than the end result. You know that one thing you’re really passionate about but often put off because other things are prioritized first? Maybe try to prioritize your responsibilities differently. Maybe you really enjoy writing, drawing, painting, reading, etc. Giving yourself time to do activities that you most enjoy and learning to be present in them will soon carry over to the priorities that you have to complete. You’ll find it easier to complete those “have-to’s” if you’re passionate about the work you’re putting in vs. the end result of the project.

Healthy Striving v. Perfectionism5. Set time limits for all your projects so that you can move on more quickly. In some cases, perfectionists struggle with time management, so it can be extremely helpful to set time limits for projects. For instance, say you have a paper to write, readings to do, and a project to complete. If you work on each assignment for about an hour and then move on to the next task as soon as that hour is over, you’ll find that you really do get more work done. Also, be sure to make time for eating, taking stretch breaks, chatting with a friend and other self-care needs.

Remember, you really don’t have to “do it all” and aim to be perfect. Shifting away from perfectionism toward healthy striving does not mean you will fail — it means you will be giving yourself the gift of grace and room to achieve likely more than you thought possible.