Perfection. It’s a powerful word that packs a mean punch. Far from being the ultimate goal, perfectionism can harm productivity and your chances for success — especially as a hardworking student with work and family responsibilities. And there’s nothing perfect about that.
Perfectionism can lead to depressive feelings and an increase in anxiety.
Stephanie Hartselle, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University, isn’t surprised. “With perfectionism, there’s a part of the brain that says if you can’t do something perfectly, then don’t bother doing it at all,” she says. “I see this so much with college students and especially mothers going to school. It’s the ‘perfect mother complex’ where they feel they have to do everything — have the job, be the great mom, be the straight-A student, be the good wife — and if they can’t do it perfectly, they feel like a failure.”
But how do you make the important distinction between perfectionism and a healthy pursuit of excellence? “I teach my students and the adults I work with that in order to be successful, you have to fail,” explains Hartselle.
The key to overcoming perfectionism is to change your mindset to realize that failing is a crucial part of learning and growing. Doing small things, such as a small extra credit assignment, and not doing them perfectly can be the first step in overcoming perfectionism and anxiety about achieving perfection.
“It’s hard to mess up and fall on your face, but what it does is strengthen the things that contribute to success: grit and resilience,” Hartselle explains. “You can’t learn and grow if you have to have things perfect every time. Some of the most successful people in the world — Bill Gates, Michael Jordan — have all failed at some point and are not perfect. But look at how successful they are today.”