Faculty Spotlight: Perfectionism

As students begin the new school year, it is important to foster positive approaches to academics and the demands of college. Perfectionism, the tendency to set and hold unrealistically high expectations, is a prevalent phenomenon.1,2 Undergraduate students may be especially susceptible to perfectionism due to an increase in responsibilities and demands of college, such as new social, academic and financial stressors.2 These new responsibilities may contribute to the onset of distress in students, such as symptoms of anxiety or depression.2 Students may attempt to alleviate the distress of these new responsibilities through increasing their control of the demands placed on them. One way to assert control over various domains and responsibilities is through perfectionism.

While there are benefits to perfectionism, such as a high level of performance and an increased attention to detail, maladaptive perfectionism can result in excessive self-criticism and a general sense of inadequacy.1 Distressed college students may place too much emphasis on earning straight A’s or may spend too much time worrying about small details. This may increase their distress and the amount of time they are spending on assignments, thus creating a cycle of stress leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

How can we combat perfectionism, while still helping students to be successful?  Self-compassion, defined as the awareness that disappointments and flaws are an inevitable part of the human experience and everyone deserves kindness, even the self, may provide a new perspective for students struggling to meet their own high demands.1 Self-compassion has specifically been identified as a possible mediator between maladaptive perfectionism and symptoms of depression in undergraduates.1 As a mediator, self-compassion may be able to help explain the relationship between perfectionism and depressive symptoms, suggesting that among perfectionistic students, as self-compassion scores are higher, depressive symptoms are lower. Similarly, increased resiliency-related behaviors, such as seeking social support when needed, has been linked to decreased distress among college students who exhibit maladaptive perfectionistic cognitions and behaviors.2 Social pressures related to perfectionism had the strongest relations between low levels of resiliency and high levels of symptoms of depression and anxiety.2

Among undergraduates, especially those considering graduate or professional school, academic performance is a constant concern. As we know perfectionism can have negative consequences on the wellness of students, it is important that faculty and staff try to promote an environment where academic success is supported, but constructs, such as self-compassion, are also facilitated. Modeling and discussing self-care with students, such as reminding students to reach out when feeling distressed, may aid in a more balanced approach to the demands of academics, preventing maladaptive perfectionistic consequences (symptoms of depression and anxiety). Lastly, recognizing that all students begin the college experience with varying expectations and emotional health can be beneficial in faculty and staff expectations of students.

1Mehr, K. E., & Adams, A. C. (2016). Self-compassion as a mediator of maladaptive perfectionism and depressive symptoms in college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30(2), 132-145. doi: 1.1080/87.568225.2016.1140991

2 Kilbert, J., Lamis, D. A., Collins, W., Smalley, K. B., Warren, J. C., Yancy, C. T., & Winterowd, C. (2014). Resilience mediates the relations between perfectionism and college student distress. Journal of Counseling & Developmen, 92, 75-92. doi: 10.1002/j.556-6676.2014.00132.x

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