How Perfectionism Affects Learning

Perfectionism can be viewed as both a positive personality trait and a detrimental one. Having ambition, self-discipline and high standards are not negative attributes. However, perfectionism has also been linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. It is important to find the healthy balance between holding yourself to a high standard and never accepting any form of perceived failure.

“Over-relying on any personality trait can go too far. Perfectionism is no different. Finding a happy middle ground is the best way to leverage the upsides of having high standards, while mitigating the negative effects it can have on your mental health, well-being, and relationships.” – Melody Wilding

Achieving perfection is impossible, but can we harness the positive parts of perfectionism and let go of the negative? Recognizing when perfectionism is holding us or our students back is an important first step.

Types of Perfectionism

Before we can learn how to manage perfectionism, it’s important to recognize the different types. Perfectionism, like many traits, can be viewed as a spectrum. There are three primary forms of perfectionism: socially prescribed, other-oriented, and self-oriented. Socially prescribed perfectionists are very self-critical and feel pressured to be the best or risk rejection from their peers. This form can lead to anxiety and low confidence. Other-oriented perfectionists on the other hand, project their high expectations onto others. Their high standards can come across as judgmental and critical. This variety can be very detrimental to relationships, especially those at work. Finally, self-oriented perfectionists set high standards for themselves, and are organized, conscientious and goal-oriented. This type tends to be more productive, resourceful and assertive.

Think about where you or your students fall on this spectrum. They may be strictly one type or a combination of all three. If you or your student feel that perfectionism is holding you back, perhaps feeling unable to begin tasks, burned out or feeling that adding one more task sparks a downward spiral, it’s time to find a healthy balance.

Perfectionism and Learning

One study of about 10,000 students, aged 12-21, found that perfectionism predicted better academic achievement. However, when these students fail to meet their self-imposed standards, significant psychological stress can occur. This can lead to increased depression and burnout that can follow them from the learning environment into the workplace. Also, a sense of perfectionism can leave one frozen and unable to even start tasks for fear of failure.

“The reason we don’t act on our desire to learn that language or master that new sport is because when we get started, we’re not going to be very good and this will quickly shatter that illusion of perfection that we’ve fantasised about so vividly.” – Nasos Papadopoulos

Melody Wilding of Psychology Today suggests five things to find balance:

  1. Identify the hidden payoff in perfectionism.
  2. Get radically honest about the costs.
  3. Let go of the all-or-nothing mindset.
  4. Break down your big goals into smaller, more realistic steps.
  5. Celebrate your successes.

For more information on balancing optimal performance with damaging overachieving, check out the resources below.


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