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How to Navigate College and Combat Unhealthy Perfectionism

How to Combat Maladaptive Perfectionism

Striving for perfection is a good thing—isn’t it? Turns out, the answer may not be that simple. According to experts, the response to perfectionist tendencies is what matters most. With all the pressures they face, college students are especially vulnerable to the hazards of perfectionism and the effects it can have on mental health and goal achievement. The good news is that by better understanding these dynamics and applying a few key strategies, you can combat unhealthy perfectionism to remain in charge of your life.

Defining the Difference

Perfectionism can be helpful and harmful. The difference depends on the category to which it belongs: healthy perfectionism or maladaptive perfectionism. Dr. Jessica Rohlfing Pryor studies perfectionism at The Family Institute at Northwestern University’s Perfectly Imperfect Lab. She says that healthy perfectionists challenge themselves by setting high goals and standards. When they fail, they’re able to learn from the failure and stay engaged in the activity.

However, maladaptive perfectionists don’t exercise these positive dynamics. Instead, Dr. Pryor says they create extremely high and unrealistic goals, which often sets them up for failure. When they fail, they do one of two things: become obsessed with the goal and increase their efforts or avoid the activity altogether.

“A top priority becomes avoiding failure at any cost,” she said. “For some, that means they may double or triple their efforts toward the goal. But then others may go to the opposite extreme and avoid the experience or task altogether.”

Maladaptive perfectionists may also feel the need to hide their mistakes, for fear of shattering the positive perceptions of others. “This is a pretty miserable way to function, all of these things combined,” said Dr. Pryor. “It’s pretty rough, and really with the best of intentions to do well, many individuals get caught in this type of imperfectionism.”

Perfectionism Among College Students

In a study published in Psychological Bulletin by Thomas Curran, PhD and Andrew P. Hill, PhD, researchers examined college students in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom from 1989 to 2016 and found that perfectionism has increased over the past three decades. They evaluated responses from 41,000 students using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which measures degrees of perfectionism and distinguishes between its three aspects: self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented.

The American Psychological Association offers these descriptions of the different types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented, having an irrational desire to be perfect
  • Socially prescribed, perceiving excessive expectations from others
  • Other-oriented, placing unrealistic standards on others

Researchers found the following increases in each of the perfectionism categories throughout the course of three decades: self-oriented, 10%; socially prescribed, 33%; other-oriented, 16%.

Lead study author Dr. Curran, attributes the rise in perfectionism among millennials to a variety of potential factors—including pressures created by social media use, the drive to earn money, pressure to get a good education, and setting “lofty” career goals. Curran says the social media hypothesis requires further research.

If a student is engaging in maladaptive perfectionism, the negative dynamics may keep them from achieving their goals in various ways such as passing classes, maintaining social lives, getting admitted to graduate school, or obtaining internships. Maladaptive perfectionism can also affect a student’s mental health, since the various categories of perfectionism can contribute to issues that include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, hostility, and suicidal ideation.

Identifying Maladaptive Perfectionism

If you see yourself as a perfectionist and are wondering if this should be a concern, Dr. Pryor suggests the following non-clinical self-assessment questions created with Northwestern University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program to help you decide. For an accurate assessment, reach out to a mental health specialist for an individual evaluation and treatment plan.

  • Do you worry about what others will think if they saw who you really are?
  • Do you feel as though the better you do, the better you are expected to do?
  • Do you put off starting or finishing projects, wanting to get them just right?
  • Do you find that you are never satisfied with your accomplishments?
  • Does your family/partner expect you to be perfect?
  • Do you push people away in order to avoid rejection?
  • Do you feel that something only counts if it’s done perfectly?
  • Does failure raise your expectations of yourself even higher?
  • Do you “collect” your failures and mistakes in a mental archive?
  • Do you feel that others are too demanding of you?
  • Are you highly self-critical?

Effective Coping Strategies

There are strategies that can help individuals deal with maladaptive perfectionism. In Pushing Back on Perfectionism: How to Be Happily Imperfect, Dr. Pryor recommends the following to help people “better understand, avoid, and scale back unhealthy perfectionism”:

  1. Remember: Perfectionism is an “absolute illusion,” which is fed by a lifetime of distorted messages that perfection is possible.
  2. Break goals into bite-size pieces to make things more manageable and as a reminder to celebrate each accomplishment, no matter how small.
  3. Interrupt the self-critical voice in your head and replace it with a positive statement or redirection to more constructive thinking.
  4. Do something positive for yourself like pausing when you’re stressed out and embracing relaxing practices.
  5. Use a mantra that provides positive reinforcement that you are enough.
  6. Recognize it may be in your genes—a fact supported by research and which can inhibit the self-blame game.
  7. Reach out to a professional to get the help you need.
  8. Stick with therapy, especially and even when it’s time to get real.
  9. Recognize that you are modeling behavior for others and help those who are watching you to adopt these healthy strategies, too.


Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429.




Author Bio: Allegra Balmadier is a digital PR coordinator at 2U, Inc. Allegra supports outreach for their nursing, counseling, and public health programs.

Image by silviarita from Pixabay

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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