When you’re in high school, there’s a lot of importance placed on achievement. You want to do good work, earn good grades, and learn all you can to set yourself up for your future.
Because of this, you may be a high-achieving student who sets big goals and works hard to accomplish them. However, when high achievement and ambition turn to perfectionism, it can become a roadblock to attaining your goals — and may negatively impact not only your academic success, but your personal well-being, too.
To develop a healthy connection to achievement, success, and expectations, it’s important to recognize what perfectionism looks like and to change your relationship with it.
What is Perfectionism?
While we typically think of perfectionism as holding high standards for oneself, psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gorden Flett identified three forms of perfectionism in their 1991 paper:
- Self-oriented perfectionism is having unrealistic expectations for yourself, holding yourself to perfect standards, and being hard on yourself when you don’t meet those expectations.
- Other-oriented perfectionism is having unrealistic expectations for others, holding others to perfect standards, and being hard on others when they don’t meet those expectations.
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism is believing that others have unrealistic expectations for you, that others are holding you to perfect standards, and that others will be critical of you when you don’t meet those expectations.
Perfectionism shouldn’t be confused with striving for excellence. For many, working hard and doing their best is achievement enough, even if they don’t get a perfect score. However, for those wrestling with perfectionism, doing their best isn’t enough, and they’ll strive to be perfect at the expense of their own health and wellness.
Perfectionism is on the rise — especially in younger individuals. A study conducted between 1989 and 2016 found that levels of perfectionism in college students “increased by statistically significant amounts” and that perfectionism caused by societal pressure increased at twice the rate.
A 2022 study of 16 to 25-year-olds found that “85.4% of participants identified having perfectionist traits that were primarily focused on academic achievement … and experienced stress that affected their physical and mental health and well-being.”
Individuals with perfectionist tendencies may have historically been rewarded for good work, and are conditioned to seek that out again. They may believe they must be perfect to please their parents or earn their family’s respect — one study found that “the perception of high parental expectations, or the perception of high parental criticism” is a contributor to perfectionism.
They may have a fear of failure and believe that they can avoid it by being perfect. Or they may need to meet unrealistic expectations in a world of curated, seemingly “perfect” lives on social media. But whatever the cause, perfectionism isn’t a healthy way to approach the world.
How to Identify Perfectionism
Perfectionism exhibits itself through a number of behaviors and personality traits that tend to be more extreme than those exhibited by a typical high-achiever. Some of the ways perfectionism shows up in everyday life include:
Being human inherently means being imperfect. While it’s good to strive for your best in many situations, perfectionism says that everything you do has to be perfect — and anything less than that is unacceptable.
Being highly self-critical
For those with perfectionist traits, there’s no such thing as just doing “good enough.” If they don’t get an A+ on the paper, win the game, or even pick up a new skill perfectly on the first try, they’re highly critical of their perceived failure.
A focus on outcomes and results
Focusing only on achieving perfect results means that perfectionists not only miss out on learning and growing through the process, but they have a hard time being proud of their accomplishment.
Fear of failure
While failure is a part of life and a way to learn and grow, failing can be terrifying for many. Perfectionism says that if you’re not perfect, you’ve failed — and failure may result in negative relationships, friends thinking less of you, or losing out on opportunities.
Overworking — to the detriment of wellbeing
Individuals struggling with perfectionism often overwork themselves to meet their high expectations. They may stay up all night to edit an essay, work out multiple times a day to be in peak physical shape for the big game, or spend money they don’t have on a gift to impress a friend.
Those with perfectionist traits also tend to procrastinate; if they can’t do something perfectly the first time, they may keep putting it off for fear of failing.
The Consequences of Perfectionism
The lie perfectionism tells you is that being perfect will help you get ahead and set you up well for the future. But striving only for perfection actually has the opposite effect.
Here are some of the downsides and negative impacts you may experience with perfectionism:
Dissatisfaction and disappointment
Because those with perfectionist tendencies focus so much on working to make everything perfect, they are likely to experience more dissatisfaction and disappointment in their everyday lives. Constantly thinking “I’m not good enough” can steal the joy from experiences.
Negative impact on relationships
Perfectionism isn’t limited to academic achievement; wanting to be the perfect child, the perfect sibling, or the perfect friend may lead you to change your behaviors to fit that role. Alternatively, you may place such high expectations on your family and friends that you’re disappointed when they don’t meet them.
Taking more time to complete tasks
Because perfectionism and procrastination go hand-in-hand, you may be reluctant to start new projects or activities out of fear of failure. Once you do start, your efforts to make sure whatever you’re doing is perfect could result in it taking much longer than anticipated. This may lead to being rushed at the end or missing deadlines, compounding the feeling of failure.
Worry, anxiety, or depression
Perfectionism can also cause a lot of stress, worry, and anxiety because of the fear of failure. Multiple studies have found connections between perfectionism and depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.
How to Change Your Relationship to Perfectionism
It’s unfortunately becoming more common to struggle with perfectionism, but you don’t have to be consumed by it. Here are some steps you can take to try to overcome perfectionism and reduce your dependency on perfect outcomes.
1. Realign or reframe expectations
The old adage “perfect is the enemy of good” speaks to the fact that trying to be perfect will actually prohibit you from doing good, meaningful, and impactful work. Start to realign or reframe your expectations around what good achievement means, because perfection is unachievable.
Going out of your comfort zone can help with this process, showing you that growth can often happen when you least expect it.
2. Ask others to help reset expectations
Individuals may try to be perfect because they don’t want to let others down or lose their respect or love. Reach out to friends and family to ask them to help you reset those expectations, and to help you see that if you aren’t perfect, you’ll still be loved and cared for.
As you move forward in your schooling and into your college career, you’ll find that those in your life want you not just to do your best, but be your best — and will be there to support you along the way. Communicating with your professors in college is one way to help them understand how best to help you.
3. Gain perspective on what matters
When you’re in high school, every grade and achievement may seem incredibly important for your future. But gaining perspective will help you realize that being perfect will not necessarily get you ahead. Doing your best is what counts — and embracing failure and learning from it will take you much further than being perfect.
If social media is exacerbating feelings of inadequacy, try taking a break.
4. Practice self-compassion
Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion can help ease feelings of failure. Counteract the high self-criticism that comes with perfectionism by encouraging and supporting yourself. One way to do that is to say to yourself what you’d say to others in the same situation.
Managing your stress is also important to practicing these behaviors and help to support your overall wellbeing.
5. Seek professional help
It may be easy to read this advice, but if you’re struggling with perfectionism to the extent that it’s impacting your physical and mental health, you should seek out a therapist or other professional who can help you change your behaviors and thinking.
While there is a lot of importance placed on achievement at this stage in your life, you don’t have to be held back by perfectionism. Recognizing the signs of perfectionism, taking steps to reassess your expectations for yourself and others, and seeking help when you need it are the first steps towards overcoming perfectionism.