The problem with perfect

The first time I ever got a B in a class, I burst into tears at work.

My coworkers walked past me and sympathized, asking if I had just failed a class. Through my sobs, I told them I might as well have. I got a B. Their sympathy for me vanished. A B, they told me in exasperated voices, is still a good grade.

But it wasn’t for me. I’m a perfectionist, and though this is often presented in our society as a positive trait, perfectionism can have profoundly negative impacts on mental health. Students should be aware of this impact, and not be afraid to talk about it.

Being imperfect is not the same thing as being a failure.

I beat myself up about that B for weeks. It felt like a failure to me because an ‘acceptable’ grade wasn’t that to me.

This is an example of what experts refer to as maladaptive perfectionism.

Shannon Anderson, outreach coordinator for Counseling and Psychological Services on campus, described two types of perfectionism: Adaptive, which pushes students to high levels of achievement but doesn’t negatively impact their mental health when they fall short, and maladaptive, which can deal a crushing blow to one’s self esteem when unreachable goals are not met.

Perfectionism, Anderson said, is intrinsically linked to shame. Although shame is a universal and perfectly normal feeling, people will try to avoid feeling shame by striving to be perfect.

“If you’re raised to have very high standards for yourself, one way to avoid shame is to be perfect – to have that level of functioning where you just don’t get chastised,” Anderson explained. “It’s impossible to be perfect.”

Perfectionism in its positive form can drive students to high performance and lead to very detail-oriented, successful lives. But in its negative form, it can lead to individuals setting unreachable standards for themselves, standards to which they will never measure up. This can be crippling to self-esteem.

Anderson said that as a counselor, she sees perfectionist tendencies in many people who come in for self-esteem related reasons. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, some types of maladaptive perfectionism are also linked often with depression and even suicide, especially if the individual believes society will only value them if they are perfect.

An article from the United Kingdom Mental Health Foundation also linked perfectionism and depression, sharing stories of people who believed that if they weren’t perfect, they weren’t good enough.

Making a mistake, not getting a perfect grade on something, or doing something wrong does not, nor will it ever, make you a failure.

Perfectionism is a pervasive problem in college students especially, since we live in a very high-achieving environment, Anderson said. It’s easy to fall into the belief that without the perfect grades, appearance, social life, and personality, we are worthless. This is simply not true.

As we get into the new school year, students, especially students new to the collegiate environment, should focus on self-care. It’s hard to remember to take care of oneself in this fast-paced world, but it’s absolutely necessary.

You don’t need to be perfect to be worth it.

As students on a college campus, we need to make it more acceptable to discuss these issues, and take away the societal shame that comes with seeking help. With maladaptive perfectionism, people are often ashamed to ask for help because asking for help means admitting imperfection, Anderson said.

We’re Cougs, and we take care of Cougs. We control the tone of the conversation on this campus. Let’s make it normal to talk about our struggles. We live in a culture that stigmatizes talking about mental health, and we all need to take steps to change that. We don’t need to pretend it’s always a good thing to be a perfectionist.

In the immortal words of John Steinbeck, “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Michelle Fredrickson is a senior communication major from Issaquah. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by opinion@dailyevergreen.com. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of the Office of Student Media.