I love lists. I use them all the time. I make pro/con lists when I face difficult decisions, I make categorized packing lists when I go on trips, I make daily to-do lists to track my responsibilities. I am a huge believer in lists.
Sometimes, I think of life as one very long checklist. I have to mark off certain boxes to know that I’m succeeding. Get good grades. Build a strong resumé. Have a rich social life. Some days, I feel confident that I’ve checked off all the boxes I’m supposed to. Other days, I feel like there’s too much to do and no time to catch up. This internal struggle is emblematic of the challenges perfectionists can face in college.
Perfectionism can be both a useful tool and a dangerous weapon. When harnessed properly, it can help students perform well and be academically successful. In excess, it can become a paralyzing force that raises students’ stress and damages their mental health.
Careful and deliberate planning can be beneficial in the pursuit of academic goals, but for perfectionist students, having to stray from a plan unexpectedly often causes intense distress, according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences. The checklist is useful — until it isn’t.
And just because the checklist is there, constantly looming, doesn’t mean that it gets done in a timely manner. One counterintuitive habit that often accompanies perfectionism is procrastination.
“Some people become so overwhelmed with such stress and demands of perfectionism that they're unable to start a task,” psychologist Dr. Katharina Star said in an article for Verywell Mind. “Fear of failure can lead to procrastination or never following through on what one sets out to achieve.”
You can’t do something wrong if you don’t start it at all.
Perfectionism has played a major, often damaging role in my life. Throughout high school, I placed school above everything else: extracurriculars, relationships, mental and physical health. I would skip soccer to do homework, forget to shower and stay up until 3 a.m. I had horrible time management skills, deteriorating health and perfect grades.
My extreme perfectionist tendencies reached such a peak in my first year of college that I stopped leaving my dorm room in favor of “productivity.” I avoided social situations, procrastinated on my homework, and — once again — made perfect grades. But my 4.0 came at a great mental cost.
I decided that my sophomore year would be a lesson in rest. I did my best to relieve the pressure I’d placed on myself for years. I hushed the critical voice in my head, took time for myself and focused on doing things that made me happy. My resumé suffered so that I could thrive.
College students are under a lot of pressure from outside forces. There are people coming at you from all sides, explaining that you have to be in a leadership position here and get an internship there or you won’t be successful. As if that weren’t enough, perfectionists add a heap of internal pressure to the mix. It’s a mindset students are better off without.
Letting go of perfectionism is not an easy task, though. It took over a year of self-reflection and intentional efforts to get to where I am now, and I still struggle. I also couldn’t do the work alone. My friends, family and therapist have all contributed greatly to the progress I’ve made thus far. Some may find that they need a similar support system to start moving forward.
Professional help can be a critical aid in the journey toward self-awareness, and a strong network of family and friends is essential. In the end, no matter how you choose to do it, the hard work is worth it. Take a deep breath. Give yourself grace. Stop seeking perfection, and you’ll probably find peace.