About Perfectionism

In an exam setting…. many students fall into the perfectionism trap and spend too much time on questions trying to get things “perfect”. Sound familiar? So,which is better? Managing your time and getting through the paper with strong answers or aiming for perfection, writing down “100%” answers and running out of time with 2 questions left to answer?

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing. ~ Harriet Braiker ~

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterised by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology)]

In an exam setting…. many students fall into the perfectionism trap and spend too much time on questions trying to get things “perfect”. Sound familiar? So,which is better? Managing your time and getting through the paper with strong answers or aiming for perfection, writing down “100%” answers and running out of time with 2 questions left to answer?

Nobody likes to fail, but we understand failing does not equate necessarily to failure.  There is a difference and we need to understand that to fail mean you haven’t made it yet; you need a littlework and then you will pass or you may even excel.  The real problems arise when you think you cannot fail.  Don’t miss quote me here, I didn’t say you are doing so well at a particular time that it appears as though you are not going to fail, I am saying that as the definition states, you have set yourself up to such a high standard, failing would be absolutely devastating.

Having a mindset of Perfectionism can be devastating because of the fact you may not always have the right answer.  A list of how a Perfectionist may think can be seen below:

·      Black-and-white thinking – we can all do this at some time or another, for example, ‘Any error means I’m a failure.’ ‘Only 100% is acceptable.’

·      Catastrophic thinking (e.g., “If I make a mistake in front of my co-workers, I won’t be able to survive the humiliation”, “I can’t handle having someone being upset with me.”)

·      Probability overestimation (e.g., “Although I spent all night preparing for a presentation, I know I won’t do well”, “My boss will think I am lazy if I take a couple of sick days.”)

·      Should statements (e.g., “I should never make mistakes”, “I should never come across as nervous or anxious”, “I should always be able to predict problems before they occur.”)

Examples of perfectionistic behaviour:

·      Chronic procrastination, difficulty completing tasks, or giving up easily

·      Overly cautious and thorough in tasks (e.g., spending 3 hours on a task that takes others 20 minutes to complete). Classic example is wanting the Balance Sheet to balance in a Financial Accounting exam!

·      Excessive checking of your work. Think about it for a second, have you ever gone over and over an answer,checking your spelling mistakes, checking your grammar or taking a maths answer and dissecting it to the point where it no longer has meaning?

·      This one is very similar to the last point, but have you ever tried to improve something by re-doing them? Not just once but constantly?

·      Agonising over small details

·      Or make elaborate ‘to do’ lists? And I don’t mean just a small ‘to do’ list but something mapping out every second of the day?

·      Or even avoided trying something new because you might makemistakes? Classic Procrastination!

You may think having this type of thinking or behaviour may spur you on to get better scores in your exams, however, the truth is it is only going to takeover and actually affect your exam results. When a person has a Perfectionist mindset, it is not limited to just doing well (or perfect) on a particular exam. No, it means everything in your life is supposed to be perfect. Perfectionism can and very often is just a symptom of some very serious disorders like depression, anxiety, personality and eating disorders, just to name a few.  But can we find positive aspects of being a perfectionist? We often see people being perfectionists. For example, have you ever come across people at work or in your studies you excuse because ‘oh, they always take longer because they are a perfectionist.’? We know these kinds of people and we may even find areas in our own lives where we are perfectionists. Who hasn’t been very driven by an assignment and wanted to do our very best… maybe even excel beyond our very best and make it perfect?  How many times have we not wanted to hand in something because it just wasn’t perfect yet? And how many times have we worried we hadn’t lived up to people’s expectations, regardless of how well we achieved?    

Well, we have to consider there are two types (possibly even more) of perfectionism.  Normal perfectionism is just what it says, we have an innate desire for perfection.  Some individuals have more of a drive then others for Perfection, but I would like to think we all strive to achieve it in some shape or form.  Also, keep in mind I am using the term ‘Normal’ to show we all have perfectionistic tendencies, meaning we all try to achieve the best. Maybe not all the time, but in general, if we are working on a task, we don’t want to fail and we want to be seen as achieving a high standard.  

“J. Stoeber and K. Otto suggest perfectionism consists of two main dimensions: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive aspects of perfectionism; perfectionistic concerns are associated with negative aspects (see below).

·      Healthy perfectionists score high in perfectionistic strivings and low in perfectionistic concerns.

·      Unhealthy perfectionists score high in both strivings and concerns.

·      Non-perfectionists show low levels of perfectionistic strivings.”

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology)]

This brings a new dimension into what we see as perfectionism.  When we consider the Normal v Neurotic (I will go further into the neurotic aspect of Perfectionism later, however, we have already seen the negative aspects of Perfectionism and these are considered to be neurotic in nature) and there appears to be a huge difference between Perfectionistic striving and Perfectionistic concerns.  Keeping in mind, I am not a psychologist and if you have any concerns regarding your mental health should be a matter between yourself and your GP. I know myself; I feel there can also be a fine line between striving and concerns.  What I hope you get out of this blog today; is you can be a perfectionist without it being detrimental to your exam results, mental health and your life but it is important to know the difference between Perfectionistic Striving and Perfectionistic Concerns.  

You may be wondering, ‘what does this all mean and what are the positive aspects I can build on?’

In my opinion, I think the most important aspect and Perfectionist trait is (drumroll!) organisation – especially regarding exam prep.  The danger can be to become neurotic and allow your organisation to control your life, but it is a trait that all Perfectionists have. I have a feeling you will find that in most of my blogs, everything comes down to organization.  That ‘to do’ list talked about earlier is part of your organisation and your perfectionism.  What we really need to do is make sure we strive for perfection in our ‘To Do’ list and not create a ‘To Do’ list of concerns because these concerns are normally about what other people thinkabout your actions.

Consider the following quote: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinion drown out your inner voice” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is considered a perfectionist; however, he was the poster boy for ‘STRIVE’ perfectionism.  He didn’t concern himself with what people wanted of him and sometimes to his detriment.  He didn’t cater to the Members of the Board at Apple and he was fired from the board of his own company in 1985, starting NeXT and Pixar! After Apple purchased NeXT, he returned to Apple, making it even bigger with products like the iMac, iPod, iPad, etc. Ok, this isn’t a Steve Jobs blog, however the importance of people like Steve Jobs is an example of how Perfectionism can be incredible for success.  

However, I started this blog talking about the dangers of perfectionism. I said I was going to talk more about the Neurotic Perfectionism or Concern Perfectionism.The real problem here is when we are so concerned in what the outside world thinks, it affects our actions and this is the danger of perfectionism. We all have a tendency to want to impress the people in our lives.  We don’t however find we have to be perfect (at least not all the time, right?) to the point we can’t function. This is why Concern Perfectionism can lead to depression and other mental disorders.  Eating disorders like anorexia are extreme examples of how perfectionism has a negative side. The same is true for taking on exams. When we set a plan that is clearly unrealistic and unattainable, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Not only are we liable to fail, but the set back of failing can come down on us even harder because we feel it is completely necessary to get perfection.

I think that the key here is to set reasonable, attainable goals and set up aplan to carry them out in a workable way, leaving room for possible (and almost inevitable) setbacks that enter from the outside.  It is important to remember; we don’t have control over everything and we need to prepare in a way that allows us room for improvement. I like the term ‘STRIVE’ as the connotation is just that, we strive for perfection. In the long run, we may get very close (in our own eyes, we may even attain it) but we are not working towards a goal that we think the rest of the world wants us to reach.  So much of our time can be wasted, just trying to reach gold, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘Am I doing it for me?’  If not, why are we trying so hard to reach a standard we may not even want to get to?

Confucius said "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." And I think there is a lot to take from that. Striving for better is far more agreeable then worrying about not getting there, but we just don't want to have extreme perfectionism get in the way!

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