Trying to be perfect can come at a cost

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By Kyle Brutman

Give an adaptive perfectionist a C on an exam, and he or she will likely evaluate the results and eventually understand what lead to the grade.

Give a maladaptive perfectionist a C on an exam, and he or she will likely be compelled to take the grade as a devaluation of self worth, leading to possible mental and physical health issues.

Perfectionism is not necessarily a bad thing. Those with perfectionist tendencies simply hold a higher standard for themselves — more specifically in college students, they set a high bill for themselves academically.

But, when doing well becomes an unhealthy obsession, issues become apparent.

“Perfectionism is a good thing until it gets the best of you,” says Dr. Ruperto Perez, the director of the Georgia Tech Counseling Center.

He says that when perfectionism becomes too stressed, a person may start to question his or her self-image.

For a lot of people, it may get out of hand when stepping foot on a college campus. The post-secondary environment often offers a different set of challenges than the ones that were given in high school. Classes are more difficult and students are forced to become more independent in all aspects of life.

College is also the last educational step before becoming part of the full-time labor force, so being involved while also taking harder courses and going grocery shopping alone for the first time can take a toll on a person.

The type of perfectionist that becomes most self-destructive is one of the maladaptive variety. Maladaptive perfectionists have high standards for themselves, but when they do not live up to their expectations, they translate it into a large decrease in self-worth and self-esteem. Adaptive perfectionists are more controlled in they way they react to what they consider to be imperfect results.

The maladaptive types are typically the ones that will need to seek outside help from college counseling centers.

“They get wrapped around in that sort of depressive thinking and it can lead to other dire consequences,” Perez says.

The depressive thought process that maladaptive perfectionists may go through can become the beginning of an emotional slippery slope.

These “dire consequences” can come in the form of numerous conditions, such as anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal ideation, among others. A study performed led Kelsie Forbush, Dr. Todd F. Heatherton and Dr. Pamela K. Keel found that participants (2,482 college students) who had experience with food-related disorders in their lifetimes hold higher levels of perfectionism than those in the survey without an eating disorder history.

An abstract from a recent study explores the idea that perfectionism is linked with suicide, saying, “when formulating clinical guidelines for suicide risk assessment and intervention and public health approaches to suicide prevention, there is an urgent need for an expanded conceptualization of perfectionism as an individual and societal risk factor.”

One aspect of thinking that is big among perfectionists is internal “locus of control.” This means that a person with perfectionist tendencies will turn his or her “failures” inward. They will attribute their success to solely their own doing and reward themselves, but non-successes can lead to self-punishment.

Maladaptive perfectionists are most susceptible to having an impactful internal locus of control.

“They believe they are the only ones in control of their responsibilities and therefore any mistakes are completely on them and they punish themselves for that,” says Maggie Bertram, the Associate Director of Training and Education at Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that caters to mental health among college students.

Bertram herself says that she has been obsessive about school-related activities due to certain attitudes she acquired from a young age.

When Bertram was in college, she would get assignments done days or weeks in advance but would still agonize over the smallest of details until the time she would have to turn her paper in for grading.

“I over-studied for exams,” Bertram says. “I never celebrated when I got the grade I wanted. I felt ashamed when I didn’t get the grade I wanted.”

For those with perfectionist tendencies, the feeling of “not doing enough” can often lead to varying forms of mental instability.

Statistically, the two most common effects of perfectionist attitudes — depression and anxiety — are common among college students.

Victoria Maxwell, in a blog post for Psychology Today, says her general anxiety disorder and the depressive side of her bipolar disorder “mingled nicely” with her need to create everything she did beyond the point of excellence.

A summary of the Spring 2013 college semester conducted by the American College Health Association says that college students come in contact with anxiety and depressive thoughts quite often.

The summary says that 51 percent of surveyed participants encountered overwhelming anxiety in the past year and 31.3 percent, at some point in the previous 12 months, felt so depressed they found it difficult to function.

It also states that nearly one-quarter of participants felt “very sad” just within the two weeks or prior to the survey.

Social media usage in college-aged students is high — high enough that it could have an effect at how people reflect on themselves. Seventy-four percent of college-aged people (aged 18-24) in the United States use social media, according to Ofcom.

That means that almost three-quarters of college students, according to the survey, are accessing content that can mislead someone into thinking that the posts reflect reality.

The social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat, both of which have a place in college culture, are generally used to chronicle positive and happy moments in the lives of users.

“People tend to publish the most impressive, entertaining, and/or attractive versions of themselves on social media platforms,” says Dr. Gary Glass, the Associate Director for Outreach and Developmental Programming at Duke University, in a Huffington Post article by Riley Griffin.  

He says that this need to portray the ideal self has made its way beyond the classroom, as social media has given perfection a place on phones and computers everywhere.

This fact is something that may not be taken lightly by viewers of the content in general, but could indeed run deep with those who possess perfectionist tendencies. They expect themselves to be a top-tier person, and when someone else makes them look like a second-tier person, via social media, a maladaptive perfectionist will likely perceive that as failure, even if this isn’t the case in reality.

Lily Osman, an 18-year-old at Franklin and Marshall College, says that she feels anxiety when seeing on social media that there was an activity that she wasn’t invited to partake in, as if she did something wrong.

What can be done to alleviate this type of reaction — not just for maladaptive perfectionists, but for all people who have high expectations for themselves?

The need for perfection, as previously stated, isn’t all that bad until it starts to negatively impact  person’s health.

Perez suggests the one approach can be helping a person who is having trouble coping with unmet expectations is to reframe perceived failures.

“It’s shifting that thinking around so that maladaptive perfectionists have a more realistic perception of their performance with what success and failure looks like,” he says.

Perez sees a lot of students with those tendencies, saying that most cases are within high-pressure majors such pre-med and architecture.

He says the purpose of this method is to help students understand that academic failures are a separate entity in terms of who they are as people.

Perez aims to show students what they need to realistically pass a class and planting the idea in their heads that Bs are good grades to get, too.

One small-scale study found that Transcendental Meditation, a 5,000-year-old Indian meditation technique, had a “significant effect” on participants who were categorized as perfectionistic thinkers.

Another study, “Long-Term Effects of Stress Reduction on Mortality in Persons ≥55 Years of Age With Systemic Hypertension,” says that Transcendental Meditation can be particularly effective in decreasing psychological stressors and increasing life span.

There are many methods, conventional and unconventional, that can help reduce perfectionistic attitudes. However, like most mental illnesses, communication and knowledge are the most effective forms of treatment a person can have.

In many cases, mental illness perpetuates because a person doesn’t know who to talk to or how to get help — the same goes with maladaptive perfectionism.

“In general, I encourage students where to go to seek help,” Perez says. “It’s helpful to know where to go on campus to regain a sense of perspective on things — that can be talking with friends, that can be talking to an academic advisor or going to a counseling center.”

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