Are you a perfectionist?

14 March 2018

Essay deadlines and exams can bring out perfectionist tendencies in many students. In this article, Rebecca Lee, Wellbeing adviser shares her tips to let go of the need to be perfect.

Male student in cafe window contemplating something on his laptop

Perfectionism is not simply about wanting things to be perfect, it’s about feeling like things need to be perfect, all the time.  Perfectionism can be related to feeling anxious, shameful or not good enough.

It’s always a good thing to strive for our best, but it’s important to recognise that sometimes our best isn’t completely perfect.  The opposite of perfectionism is not failure; it’s reality.

How can I begin to overcome feelings that I need to be perfect?

1. Enjoy the process

It’s important to recognise that we can get value and worth from the process of completing a task, and not just the outcome.  Take for example training for a race; a perfectionist might feel angry, upset or like a failure if they don’t come first.  However, the might not notice the benefits they’ve gained from simply training for the race – increased physical fitness, higher energy levels, better strength.  Not forgetting the simple achievement of completing the race. 

Try making notes about the things you are enjoying about a process along the way.  Keeping a journal can be helpful to gain perspective when reflecting back on a process where the outcome is a bit different to the expectation.  A useful question might be “what’s the worst that can happen if…” when you are struggling with worry about an outcome. 

2. Keep it in perspective

So you scored a few points less than you expected on your assignment.  Try not to catastrophise.  Remember that each assignment is not the whole of your programme.  If it’s bothering you, try speaking with your personal tutor about what you could do differently next time.  Think about moving forward, rather than ruminating on what’s already happened.  After all, it’s done now.  Time to focus on the next steps.

3. Remember your worth

Try asking friends and family what it is they like about you.  It’s unlikely that they will say “he always has a perfectly tidy room’, ‘she gets the highest grades’ or ‘they are perfect’.  It’s more likely that they will comment on your personal traits, such as your kindness, your humour or your interesting ideas. 

4. We can learn from mistakes

Research has shown that making mistakes can actually cause changes in the brain that lead us to better performances the next time we attempt something.  It actually helps us to get better at something!  In being perfect, we are missing out on all sorts of new learning experiences.

Try this Ted Talk Playlist called ‘How to Learn from Mistakes

Remember, be kind to yourself and know that it’s the little flaws and imperfections that make us who we are. 

Rebecca Lee, Wellbeing Adviser, UCL Student Support and Wellbeing