Is perfectionism a strength or a weakness?

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The term “Perfectionist”, according to the Oxford Dictionary, are people “who refuse to accept any standard short of perfection”. While this attribute may cause some to have an increased work ethic, those who are self-proclaimed perfectionist are often burn out by the constant expectation of having to over perform all the time. Photo courtesy of Aesthetic Blasphemy.

While every student strives for greatness, some students strive for flawlessness, no matter if this is an attainable goal or not. Perfectionists, according to the Oxford Dictionary, are people “who refuse to accept any standard short of perfection,” and while it may seem admirable to always pay attention to every detail, there is a downside to perfectionism. 

Alexis Roach, graduate student in higher education and student affairs, weighed in on the topic in an online discussion titled Let’s Talk Leadership: Challenging Perfectionism In Leadership. Hosted by the Student Activities Leadership Office, self-identified perfectionist students met to discuss perfectionism, particularly in the academic sense. 

Alexis Roach, graduate student in higher education and student affairs, weighed in on the topic in an online discussion titled Let’s Talk Leadership: Challenging Perfectionism In Leadership. She is a self described “recovering perfectionist”. Photo courtesy of University of Connecticut Higher Education and Student Affairs webpage.

Roach broke down perfectionism into two categories: healthy perfectionism and maladaptive perfectionism. She admitted that while it is good to have high expectations for oneself (healthy perfectionism), it can be destructive when it discourages an individual from making mistakes that serve as learning tools (maladaptive perfectionism).  

As a self-described “recovering perfectionist,” Roach explained that she remembers avoiding activities altogether if she could not meet her high standards, preventing herself and other perfectionists from trying new things or improving skills that are initially challenging. 

“Being that healthy perfectionist is in a growth mindset,” Roach said. “Whereas on the maladaptive side, you’re not centering on your growth and you’re not centering on your own learning, you’re just expecting yourself to perform perfectly 100% of the time.” 

Trying to be perfect in every aspect of your life is not only unattainable but also tiring, with several student attendees admitting that they feel burnt out after spending tedious amounts of time trying to make things perfect. 

Roach explained that the environment we live in breeds perfectionism, particularly in the United States, as constant competition pits individuals against each other, forcing many to feel as though they need to be at the top in order to live a seemingly successful and well-led life. 

“Capitalism is a huge reason why perfectionism is a big issue in our society, because capitalism really breeds competition.” Roach said. “It’s sort of like may the best person win all the time and puts this unhealthy expectation on us to always be perfect.”  

“Capitalism is a huge reason why perfectionism is a big issue in our society, because capitalism really breeds competition.”

Alexis Roach, graduate student in higher education and student affairs

Capitalist societies like the United States place a huge value on productivity, and individuals may feel imperfect if they are not working productively with every moment of their time. 

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In the virtual discussion, students shared that the American Dream philosophy also pushes them to work past their limits because they feel as though they can only be successful if they live a perfect life. Photo courtesy of Zbruley86.

Students also shared that the American Dream philosophy also pushes them to work past their limits because they feel as though they can only be successful if they live a perfect life. The same can be said in the age of social media, with the constant bombardment of people’s best selves being on display festering that need to be perfect in all aspects of your life. 

So the question now becomes how perfectionists can harness the healthy power of their personality while dealing with the maladaptive. 

“Look at the situation and think,” Roach said. “Do I need to be perfect right now? How important is this in the grand scheme of my life? Or when you fail, as we all will and we all do, ask yourself, what am I supposed to learn from this? How am I supposed to grow from this experience?” 

By being able to reframe the situation, it is possible for even the staunchest perfectionists to grow from their experiences and become more well-rounded individuals. 

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