Stress Awareness: Perfectionism at university

Anne Balls

Unihealth Perfectionism at university

Everyone feels the desire to be perfect sometimes, seemingly teenagers most of all. Today’s young adults keenly feel the pressure of their social status, the need to have ideal looks, to be in the right friendship group and to achieve academically. Such pressures are not always a positive cause for ambition and in part are fuelling an epidemic of perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?

As if to prove a point, there’s no “perfect” – universally agreed – definition of “perfectionism”. One thing that is unequivocal, however, is that perfectionists don’t think about ‘things being perfect’; they are thinking ‘they need to be’. Students work – often unhealthily – towards an unattainable goal.

As a result, Warwick University says: “Striving to meet self-imposed, very demanding standards… despite negative consequences, involves basing one's self-worth almost entirely on how well these high standards are pursued and achieved.”

It’s a recipe for disaster. Research has found much higher levels of perfectionism at university than ever before and universities are linking this to the ongoing increase in mental health issues. Indeed, there are higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among students than a decade ago, according to a 2017 report.

The flaw in perfection

“Perfectionism is highly correlated with serious mental illness because perfectionists are highly stress reactive and vigilant to achievement failure and interpersonal rejection,” Bath University’s Dr Thomas Curran told Times Higher Education.

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” he added. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”

Perfectly wrong

Contrary to what students think, perfectionism is not guaranteed to increase their chances of success. More likely it will lead to self-defeating thoughts of inadequacy that may develop into stress or anxiety.

It’s not just wellbeing that’s hit. Perfectionism at university can create a crippling fear of failure. If someone’s whole identity is bolted to what they consider to be success, then any setbacks become a threat that ultimately create risk-avoiding behaviours.

A more successful path is for students to learn to do as well as they can – to achieve and grow healthily (Goodtherapy, 2015).

Flashpoints

One flashpoint for perfectionists is the transition to higher education. As students switch from a more structured, home environment to an environment of independent living and learning, they can struggle with fewer defined targets and being alongside new, more accomplished peers. This can totally derail a perfectionist.

According to Alan Percy, head of counselling at Oxford University, perfectionism is “an increasingly insidious phenomenon” at UK universities. He says more students are taking smart drugs to get higher grades and universities are experiencing an increase in mental health problems. The cost of tuition fees and living, and the pressure to get jobs, are other well-publicised factors (Guardian, 2015).

What’s normal, what’s not

Whilst some anxiety is normal, if a desire to be perfect starts to affect sleep, appetite, mood or concentration, then students should seek support. Our own messaging programme increases students awareness of the issue of perfectionism at university. It helps them to help themselves. We include tips on getting professional help, opening up to friends and family and having the confidence to ask for space if they need it.

For anyone who wishes to help students struggling with perfectionism at university, check out these 5 tips (via the Guardian):

  • Understanding. Talk to them in a non-judgmental way. Ask them how they would help a friend who was a perfectionist. Then, see if they can take their own advice. “A brief low-cost intervention is effective at decreasing the psychological distress in maladaptive perfectionists.” (Behaviour Research & Therapy, 2010)
  • Be excellent, not perfect. Students who get the difference between excellence - being as good as they can be - and unobtainable perfection will “enhance resilience and reduce levels of risk among perfectionists,” according to one study.
  • Develop a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, talks about this a lot. Students think about improving their abilities, rather than proving them. The difference is between learning and developing, rather than negatively comparing to others.
  • No one is perfect. Reassure students that no one’s life is as perfect as it may appear online. Our flaws are what make us individuals.
  • Support. Teachers, friends and family can help by drip-feeding positive comments. These influence how students think about themselves as learners and can improve their performance considerably.