Perfectionism takes a toll on students’ health

Illustration by Miceal Munroe-Allsup

By Madeline Cox

Anxiety has become the most prominent counseling issue for Lewis & Clark students and college students nationwide, passing both depression and relationship issues in recent years.

“It used to be, in college counseling centers nationally, that anxiety was the second or third most common issue that students came in with,” Chief Psychologist and Associate Dean of Students for Health and Wellness Dr. John Hancock said. “Number one was usually some sort of relationship issue or … depression. But now anxiety is consistently number one. That’s true here at LC.”

Perfectionism is one factor contributing to the levels of stress and anxiety seen at LC.  

“At a college like LC, perfectionism has always been a challenge,” Hancock said.

Perfectionism can be defined as having high personal standards, and failing to meet those standards can cause a myriad of issues for the perfectionist.

“(Perfectionism) acts through the vehicle of anxiety,” Hancock said. “We can look at what’s the basis for that anxiety, and perfectionism can be one of the bases.”

Anxiety manifests in a variety of ways, such as worry, obsessive thoughts, sleep issues, loss of appetite, binging, nausea, shallow breathing, cold or sweaty hands, chest pain, panic attacks and avoidance behavior.

Avoidance behavior is an important issue related to perfectionism especially, as the pressure to perform at a high level can be too great for students to meet.

“(Students) have a standard for themselves that they need to meet, whether it’s with particular assignments or overall for a class, and they’re struggling to meet that standard,” Hancock said. “At some level … they stop trying. They’re avoiding not meeting their own standards.”

At its worst, perfectionism can lead to serious outcomes for students.

“Perfectionism can be debilitating,” Hancock said. “It can lead to academic failure, depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Yet as Megan Anderson ’21 has experienced, the benefits of perfectionism can outweigh the disadvantages in an academic setting, although there are still both positive and negative effects.

“I am overall a better student because of it,” Anderson said via email. “Perfectionism both positively and negatively impacts my academic performance. The positive aspect is that all of my work is done in a clean and orderly fashion. On the other hand, in order to perfect my notes or complete an assignment to my expectations, I tend to create the problem of it not being good enough so I have to start over multiple times, which leads to time being used inefficiently.”

Anderson has also seen the benefits of perfectionism in her sport, softball.

“Perfectionism has played a role in my athletic life, but has not left such a burden as it does in my academic life,” Anderson said via email. “The game of softball is solely based on the idea of failure. But at the end of the day, all it is is just a game.”

An anonymous student has also seen the benefits of perfectionism in their extracurriculars, although warns that it does not negate the harm that perfectionism can cause.

“(Perfectionism) is a double-edged sword, it’s encouraged me to push my limits and challenge myself as a student, and really think critically when necessary,” the student said. “In (extracurriculars) it’s actually helped me more than harmed me. I think in collaborative settings it can be helpful to encourage people to try their best and push themselves. But I think it can be very draining. There’s that kind of mentality you get … (that) everything I do needs to be perfect.”

There are many ways students can learn to deal with, and overcome, their perfectionist tendencies.

“Being in tune with your own body and own stress is important,” Hancock said. “The only way you can know if it is a problem or not is if you have some sense of yourself and how anxiety manifests itself in you.”

Being flexible with one’s thinking, being self-compassionate, having balance in one’s life, and having perspective are all important as well, according to Hancock.

In Anderson’s experience, having perspective has helped her deal with perfectionism.

“One thing I have found very helpful in dealing with perfectionism is to know that sometimes someone else’s perfect is not your perfect,” Anderson said via email. “We are all on different levels of our lives, so if someone’s notes look better than mine, it’s because the way we think is different. Your idea of perfect may differ from mine.”

Looking back on past experiences with a positive attitude can also be helpful in moving past perfectionism, according to a student.

“It has been helpful for me to look at how far I have come and think about that as a huge achievement,” the student said. “You look back retrospectively and see how (much) you have grown and developed as a student, it is really rewarding to look at it that way rather than seeing all of the times when you felt like you could have tried a little harder.”

Perfectionism can be a struggle for students to overcome, yet perfectionists must learn to accept making mistakes as it is part of the process of learning.

“If you’re afraid of making mistakes, you’re afraid of learning, because learning, by my definition, is strewn with mistakes,” Visiting Assistant Professor of English Don Waters said over email. “Too much perfectionism can hold a student back because if you’re always worried about making a mistake then you’re holding yourself back from engaging authentically with the course material and ideas. Once one learns to be open and curious and not afraid to make mistakes, then that’s when one can truly learn.”

Alongside general counseling, the Counseling Service offers many services to students who struggle with perfectionism and anxiety. On the Counseling Service’s online homepage there is a link to a confidential and anonymous online mental health screening which can help determine if you or someone you care about should connect with a mental health professional. There are screenings for generalized anxiety disorder, depression, eating disorders, substance use and more.

The National College Health Assessment, a survey concerning student’s mental and overall health, will be conducted this spring at LC. This survey allows LC to receive concrete data and see trends in student’s health.

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