When perfect isn't good enough

A TEDx talk on perfectionism and some strategies for overcoming it

The rigorous environment at university is challenging for all students, but can be particularly difficult for perfectionists. Having very high standards can be a helpful motivator, but can become problematic with the style and nature of work at university. Some students may also experience feelings of inadequacy – this is often described as ‘imposter syndrome’.

At university, there is always more that you could learn and explore in your subject area, and therefore students have to work out what is required of them and the skill of ‘doing enough’, rather than ‘doing everything’. Indeed, it is impossible to do and know everything at this level. This adjustment will also likely mean that you make some mistakes – that is OK, and totally normal.

It is important to remember that excellence is different to perfectionism, and to set realistic standards for yourself. You can strive for excellence and achieve excellence without being perfect. In fact, part of being a student and a human being is learning to pick yourself up and learn from mistakes.

Are you a perfectionist?

The following questions may help you to determine whether your standards are overly perfectionistic:

  • Are my standards higher than those of other people? Am I able to meet my standards?
  • Do I get upset if I don’t meet my standards?
  • Do my standards help me to achieve my goals or do they get in the way?

You might also recognise this perfectionistic behaviour:

  • Procrastination, difficulty completing tasks, or giving up easily
  • Overly cautious and thorough in tasks
  • Excessive checking and agonising over small details
  • Making elaborate ‘to do’ lists
  • Avoiding trying new things and risking making mistakes

Tools to overcome perfectionism

Realistic thinking and perspective

  • Lowering standards doesn’t mean having no standards.
  • Going after high standards is great, but if you can’t achieve them, how can you be on your own side?
  • No one can be a perfect student all the time – approach your studies as a marathon, not a race, to reduce the risk of burnout.

Practise self-compassion

What is self-compassion?

  • Relating to ourselves kindly, like we’d treat a good friend. 
  • Recognising our common humanity – everyone is imperfect. 
  • Practising Mindfulness – accepting and living in the present moment.

Often we can have the tendency to self-criticise. Frequently this is based on a belief that we need self-criticism to motivate ourselves. This isn’t true – self-criticism actually undermines our motivation.

Instead, it is more helpful to think about how you can be on your own side. Give yourself credit for effort, and try not to beat yourself up when the results are not what you were hoping for. Try to learn from negative experiences and move forward.

Mindfulness can help you cultivate compassion and self-compassion, and research has shown this to improve mental wellbeing, happiness and interpersonal relationships. Visit the Mindfulness page to find out more.