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College Life & The Perfectionist: A road to difficulties and possibly an eating disorder

Internal Publication: River Centre Clinic (2014)

There is no question that working hard and excelling in college have tremendous benefits. Students who exercise high levels of diligence, self-discipline and self-control typically perform well in the academic setting. Getting straight As, making the Dean’s List, graduating with honors likely leads to success, respect, a better job, better pay, and future opportunities. This would seem to imply that individuals who strive for perfection are the beneficiaries of incredible rewards. This is not necessarily true. While a healthy will to excel or having high performance standards and expectations reflect a desirable personality trait, the perfectionist takes the will to excel to an extreme and irrational level. The perfectionist lives in a constant state of anxiety and fear since failures are devastating insults. Perfectionism is limiting and unattainable.

There are several fundamental distinctions between the perfectionist as we are defining it here from the person with a healthy will to excel. First, the perfectionist takes convictions to the extreme by believing that any mistake or sub-par performance is unacceptable. They become undone by any error, blunder or oversight and believe that only flawless performance is acceptable. Second, the perfectionist tends to generalize the exaggerated will to excel to many or all areas of performance rather than selectively to areas that may be truly important. For example, the perfectionist may apply the same standard in studying for an important exam to other areas such as cleaning the house, folding laundry, following a fitness regimen, choosing clothes to wear- or following a diet. In contrast, for the person with a healthy will to excel, achieving high standards are placed in a specific context rather than generalized to all areas of performance. Third, for the perfectionist, performances, traits and behaviors are fundamentally tied to their self-worth. They believe that their worth as a person is reflected by how well they perform, the desirability of their traits, or the quality of their behaviors. Being perfect may be seen as the only way to ensure that a person will not be vulnerable to dangers of failure and criticism. In contrast, the person with a healthy will to excel places a premium on achieving high standards but it is not connected to their fundamental sense of self-worth. For the person with a healthy will to excel, accomplishments lead to self-satisfaction, intrinsic pleasure, and self-reward with a wish to avoid failure rather than an overwhelming fear of failure. Perfectionism on the other hand is driven by an overwhelming fear of making mistakes accompanied by intense anxiety.

The practical consequences of perfectionism often lead to less than optimal performance. Since every decision, task, or interaction has the potential to reflect inadequacy, each is accompanied by worry with little experience of enjoyment. Many perfectionists tend to procrastinate because the task seems overwhelming when it has to be completed flawlessly. They have trouble completing tasks because they cannot draw the line between what is important and what is not; they feel the need to include far more information than is necessary the task is difficult to complete. Once it is completed, then it can be judged and if the result is inferior, self-esteem takes a hit. Perfectionism can also interfere with relationships because it can lead to interpersonal or social inhibitions (people might see my inadequacies), criticalness (seeing others through a perfectionistic eyes), and pickiness (every detail is equally important), inappropriate expectations/demands of others, among other things.

It is important to recognize that starting or returning to college can heighten the perfectionistic tendencies for a number of reasons. Social demands and expectations, loss of immediately available family supports, changes in daily routine and increased academic demands can all lead to increasing fears of failure. It is also important to understand that perfectionism and low self-esteem are seedbeds for the development of an eating disorder. Eating, exercise and body weight can become a focus of perfectionists since they are areas that can be controlled in the face of the increased insecurities that are part of college life. Weight and grades both provide “numbers” that can become external markers for change. Rigid or all-or-none thinking can be applied to these numbers to help simplify the complexities of life on campus.

For the college athlete, these risks are amplified even further. The value of excellence extends to college athletics where those who excel are bestowed with special distinction. Few coaches would argue for the value of mediocrity and for many sports fitness and thinness become inextricably intertwined.

Are there any practical strategies that can help in overcoming perfectionism or converting it to a healthy will to excel? There are things that can be done but perfectionism can be a stubborn trait that resists change. Many perfectionists are proud of their perfectionism because it is confused with achieving high standards. Hopefully, as described earlier, the ways that perfectionism can actually interfere with performance and with quality of life provide a compelling case for tackling perfectionistic tendencies. Here are some practical things you can do.

Challenge Perfectionism:

  • Remember, your performance, traits and behaviors are not related to your self-worth!
  • Focus on how it feels to make progress rather than the outcome. Enjoy the process.
  • Confront inner saboteurs- be aware that you are choosing to think in a perfectionistic way; understand that your thoughts voluntary and counterproductive. Work on changing them by challenging and revising your negative self-talk.
  • Critique the critic- shift attention away from negative criticisms to more positive things.
  • Change the way you work- short, structured periods vs. long, open-ended sessions.
  • Focus on getting work done and accept that you are an “error prone human.”
  • Do not judge yourself and recognize perfectionism is not working.
  • Realistic scheduling- do not take on an excessive work load.
  • Work on overcoming fear of mistakes and embarrassment by making a few mistakes and celebrate your humanness!
  • Learn to laugh at yourself- will the object of your concern really matter in 10 years?

Become Less Driven:

  • Schedule sacred leisure time and do not let unfinished tasks interfere with this time.
  • Decide on the duration of study time in advance and then stop at the appropriate time. Take brakes!
  • Emphasize social connections with people who have a healthy balance between work and social interactions.
  • Emphasize “being in the moment” during time spent with friends and family.
  • Interrupt obsessional and the perfectionistic tendencies applied to areas that are not necessary (inappropriate cleaning, recopying notes, over-studying, reading things over and over).
  • Practice relaxation, mediation listening to music and yoga (it helps with anxiety).

Decision Making:

  • Refuse to question your choice once the decision is made.
  • Remember that nothing is 100% certain so trust your best guess.
  • Become less guarded in making decisions
  • Challenge irrational, extreme thinking

Eating Disordered Behavior:

  • Do not engage in restrictive dieting
  • Studies show that restrictive dieting actually leads to weight gain over time
  • Do not engage in extreme weight-controlling behaviors. They may not immediately interfere with academic performance but they almost always lead to academic problems down the road.
  • Seek professional assistance if you have persistent eating problems.

In sum, the distinction between perfectionism and setting high standards may appear to be subtle and largely semantic; however, the difference could not be more profound. In many ways, attending college encourages perfectionism since a premium is placed on academic performance. Moreover, some students experience performance pressures from family and friends. The pressures of college are augmented by the perfectionism trait and can often be linked to the development of disordered eating as a method of coping with low self-esteem and worries about academic performance. In the long run, working on challenging perfectionism will not only improve performance but also greatly enhance your experience of college. Finally, if you are having difficulty coping with perfectionism or eating problems, do not hesitate to get help from a college counselor or other professional.

Further Reading:
Mallinger, Allan E. and Jeanette DeWyze. Too Perfect. The Random House Publishing Group, New York. 1992.

Contributed by:

David M. Garner, Ph.D., Founder and Administrative Director, River Centre Clinic (RCC)
Julie Desai, M.A., Director, Adult Partial Hospitalization Program, RCC
Meggan Desmond, LISW, Director, Adolescent Residential Program, RCC

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Related Links:
Binge Eating Disorder and the DSM-5: What the Changes Mean

Other Links:
Adolescence Residential Program

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